Wednesday, 29 February 2012

A Growing Market

A decade ago you wouldn't have seen very many Fairtrade products in mainstream shops. Maybe sugar, a few coffee brands and some teas. The most iconic product is definitely bananas (must remember to buy some later this week!) which are used for Fairtrade campaigns around the country. But now the Fairtrade movement is sweeping the land.
The Faritrade market is flourishing in the UK with a retail value of £493 million in 2007 and doubling every year. As one of the leading Fairtrade markets the UK is setting the bar for others. Around 20% of roast and ground coffee, and 20% of bananas, sold in the UK are now Fairtrade certified which is fantastic news. Lets hope this fortnight will encourage even more people to switch to the ethical choice and get that value even higher. And the choices are huge with over 3,000 Fairtrade certified products on sale in the UK.

What really startles me when I have a choice between a Fairtrade product and a non-Fairtrade one is that the second one exists at all. If there is no Fairtrade equivalent I assume (maybe wrongly) that the product might just not be suitable for certification but if there is an equivalent that means some companies are paying a fair price while others aren't. The idea that companies are knowingly selling products that don't give the growers a fair wage just seems ridiculous. It's very easy to pick the lowest price, but it's important to remember that if you're paying less, someone else is earning less and it might mean the difference between their children getting an education or a vaccination that is desperately needed.

In an ideal world global trade should be a community effort. It isn't, and won't be, but it would be so nice to eat food and buy products knowing that the people who made them benefit from your money, they don't get pushed further and further into poverty and you can all work together to help everyone have a good life. Fairtrade is one step towards this dream.

Today I bought the classic Fairtrade sugar. Like tea, coffee and bananas its one of those products I wouldn't ever consider buying non-Fairtrade now. Other products, like the cola yesterday I'd never even seen before. It's amazing what you can find if you look.

I didn't actually know that much about the sugar I buy so today I researched that too. There's a cute little video that explains all about what Tate and Lyle do to make their products full of taste and smiles.

As well as making their sugar Fairtrade, so paying the farmers in Belize a fair wage ans supporting their communities, they use the waste from the sugar canes to fuel the processing factories and also ship, rather than fly, the sugar across the world. And there's no transport costs to the refinery as it's right on the banks of the Thames next to the shipyard. After recently investing £20 million in a new biomass boiler for the plant Tate and Lyle seem set to become even more green in the future. So, as they say, will that be one smile or two in your tea? 

Tuesday, 28 February 2012

Tips of Spring

It's been a week or so since I managed a walk along the canal so when I set off on Sunday I was hoping to see some nice big chances to show that Spring really is on its way.  I did find some, and it was much warmer than normal, but February is very much all around still. 

My picture from the bridge definitely doesn't look very spring-like...

The new season is on its way though, and pushing themselves slowly into view are the first shoots of new growth as well as some mysterious green plants that I'm hoping will have flowers so I can find out what they are.

But less nice is the huge amount of litter everywhere along the canal. It's on the banks, in the water and, having seen a dead duck in the water, I'm sure isn't good for wildlife. The canal is such a beautiful place, it's a pity I'm longing for green shoots to spread partly so that the rubbish is covered up again.

Day two into Fairtrade Fortnight and my purchase for the day is a bar of Cadbury's Fairtrade Milk Chocolate. When Cadbury's decided to make the UK's top selling chocolate bar Fairtrade they trebled the amount of Fairtrade cocoa sales from Ghana. A great first step for a big retailer, hopefully we'll see more soon.

The Fairtrade product I researched is a bit unusual, in fact I'd completely forgotten it existed until now. I'm not sure I've ever seen Fairtrade Cola in shops but it's a great idea. I'd never think about buying sugar that wasn't Fairtrade but I've never considered all the products I buy which have sugar in them too. Just like any other Fairtrade product buying these drinks guarantees that the Malawi farmers growing the sugar get a fair price. Definitely keep a look out for these bottles in shops near you, or look up your local stockist on the Ubuntu website.

Monday, 27 February 2012

Fairtrade Fortnight

Today is the first day of the 2012 Fairtrade Fortnight, two weeks of promoting, celebrating and learning about fairer deals for producers around the world, run by the fantastic Fairtrade Foundation.

Fairtrade Fortnight started back in 1995 and since then has proved to be a brilliant way of introducing people to the huge number of Fairtrade products you can find, as well as reminding us Fairtrade veterans that we need to keep looking for new products and not just be satisfied with our tea, bananas and chocolate.

This year the campaign is Take a Step for Fairtrade, asking everyone to join in the Fairtrade journey and step up their efforts to make our world fairer. Whether it's your first ever Fairtrade cuppa, joining a campaign for your town to gain Fairtrade status or running your own event you can track every step you take, and what others are doing on the website here.

But why is Fairtrade important? We rely on developing countries to produce many of our everyday products, and often these producers are trapped in poverty by the rules of world trade, powerless to change them. With prices cutting ever lower they can't earn enough to cover their costs and have nothing to save for their families or bad crop years in the future.

This sounds terrible and it is. But thankfully we're not powerless, consumer choices is one of the best ways to show big shops that we want change. Choosing Fairtrade offers farmers and workers a better chance to work their way out of poverty. Fairtrade products guarantee fair wages, safer working conditions and a little extra to invest into projects that will improve life for whole communities.

In current times it may seem silly to choose the more expensive options, but a few pennies differences make all the difference at the other end of the production chain. And I promise you that knowing your using, eating or cooking Fairtrade products adds a sweetness that beats any savings. Much better than the bitter thought that you're helping to keep people in poverty.

So join the revolution, find an event in your area, buy something you've never tried before and go on the website to find out more about this amazing mission.

I've decided to set myself a few challenges too this Fortnight. I thought about making sure I use a Faritrade product every day, but with Fairtrade tea every morning that would be a bit too easy. Instead I'm going to set myself two tasks:

1)To buy a Fairtrade product every day
2) To research and blog about a different type of Fairtrade product each day.

So, for today, I'm going to restock our house with Fairtrade tea from the Co-op.
Fairtrade often comes hand in hand with cooperatives, not just selling in the UK but also when the tea is being produced. In Sri Lanka the Fairtrade Foundation are working with Mr Wijethilleke who, with the help of Bio Foods, has set up the Small Organic Foods Association while restarting his family's small tea farm. This cooperative has about 30 small local farmers who were struggling to compete with the big tea plantations in the area. As well as making a stronger selling power the cooperative allows farmers to share knowledge and access training programmes. It's not easy but with hard work and perseverance things are getting better for the community. As the group expands they can employ more workers, often the unemployed sons and daughters of the farmers, and through this they also get a good education. The Bio Foods group also use the Fairtrade money to set up free clinic days in the area and fund short term loans when times are tough.  Not bad for a simple cup of tea!

I'm not sure how the next 13 days will go but there's no harm in aiming high. I'd love to hear what you're doing for Fairtrade Fortnight so comment and share your stories. Good Luck!

Sunday, 26 February 2012

Party Time

Until yesterday I'd never been to Liverpool but I had a party to go to so despite the engineering works on the trains I set off and (eventually) arrived in the big city.

But this was no ordinary party, in fact it was more of a huge gathering, this was the Green Party Spring Conference and I had absolutely no idea what to expect! The conference is four days long but as I was a bit uncertain about it all I'd settled for just the Saturday and even then I was worried I'd get completely lost. Thankfully the venue was right next to the station and once I'd registered and got my pack full of voting tickets, timetables and agendas I hurried off to my first session How Conference Works. This explained the main procedures for the policy sections and was very reassuring for us first timers.

Feeling a bit braver I headed to the main hall to listen to Deputy Leader Adrian Ramsay and London Mayoral candidate Jenny Jones. Remembering the TV coverage of other autumn party conferences I was quite relieved to find a large hall with nice round tables to sit at not a huge lecture theatre. It was a really friendly atmosphere and everyone was catching up and making new friends. Both speakers were good and despite a few awkward moments of belated applause it was pretty inspirational stuff, even for a not so hardcore member like me.

Next there was a policy section, unlike the other big parties the Greens still make all key policy decisions at conference with a democratic vote and it's really empowering to know you're making policy that will influence councils, MEPs' and one MP's votes-and the responsibility's quite scary too! All through the day I saw members talking about so many topics with such passion. It was great to actually hear people discussing and debating the issues, not the way it would play in the media or whether it would get votes. It's obvious the party is strongly committed to its core policies and won't compromise them just to get more votes.

Spring conference has a lot of training sessions as well as policy workshops and I took full advantage of them. I learnt how to use online media for campaigning, how to write a press release and how you can seize the news cycle. As well as being useful for the future it was interesting to hear people's experiences and case studies and to see how the experts achieve the results that are propelling the Green Party up into the centre stage of politics.

While conference is, by nature, very national you find pockets of local and regional activity too. There were regional hustings for positions, newsletters and leaflets from local parties and we even had the first ever North West Young Greens meeting. It was brilliant to meet some really passionate Young Greens from the North West and I'm sure that enthusiasm will spread as we organise more meetings and events.

During the day i even spotted a few famous Greens including MP Caroline Lucas, and MEP Keith Taylor. So in general a brilliant day with fantastic events, interesting, friendly people and passionate, thoughtful policies. Anyone who says the Green Party is a one policy party is wrong. Yes, sustainability is key to all that they do, but by putting social and environmental justice and sustainability at the centre of all policies the Greens are showing you don't have to compromise on principle in hard economic times and that in fact when times are tough protecting our world is more, not less, important for our own well-being. Take note Mr Osbourne...

Saturday, 25 February 2012

Green Money

Banking's not something you'd normally think of as being green or not-so-green. But do you know where your savings are being used? Or where your loans come from?

You probably won't be surprised to know that many banks lend to oil companies but what about arms traders and oppressive regimes? There are a few banks which haven't written off or swapped their third world debts and who have no ethical or environmental policies. Banking is definitely not a very green industry.

Money is such an important part of our lives, if we're really committed to being green then we need to work on making our money green too. Thankfully there are several ethical choices for banking and today I've taken my first steps into green banking.

The Triodos Bank only lends money to people and organisations that make a positive impact, culturally, socially and environmentally. So you know while your money's sitting in the bank is still doing good. Also, they only lend money they actually have, that has been entrusted to them from their savers.

So now I know my savings will be used to make things better, not worse, and I can even look up which projects are being supported in my area on their website.  Near Preston they're working with the Blackburn Buddhist Centre, Organic Farming in Ormskirk and a medical centre in St Anns.

Do you know what your money's doing? Why not ask your bank for their ethical policies and find out, or even look into signing up to one of the fantastic ethical banks-definitely competitive in the current economic climate.

The best thing is, my money's growing and I know that just by leaving it in the bank I'm helping peoples, organisations and the world!

Friday, 24 February 2012

Signs of Spring

I've been seeing signs of spring all over the place this week. In the city there have been daffodils, crocuses and snow drops, and I saw my first lambs from the train on Wednesday. The weather's warming up too, although there's no promise that it won't get colder again! It really is beginning to feel like the end of winter.

But being up north means we'll have to wait a while for the new season. Did you know that spring travels up the country at about 16 miles a day? So you'll probably be seeing lots of lambs down south already! But many wildlife organisations are noticing that the signs are getting earlier and earlier each year. Almost certainly a sign of climate change with unknown consequences.  If the aphid season gets earlier, will the young crows cope? If plants bloom sooner will the insects be around to pollinate them? We can only wait and see.

For now, I'm just enjoying the first signs of spring.

Thursday, 23 February 2012

A Moment with Nature

Recently I was asked to describe a "memorable moment with nature". I've been lucky enough to see many exciting, inspiring and unusual nature moments, but sometimes it's the little ones that make the biggest impact. Here's one of my favourite moments.

A few summers ago I spent two weeks as a residential volunteer at the RSPB's Fairburn Ings nature reserve. It was fantastic! One evening I decided to walk back to the volunteers' house the long way, across the reserve, rather than the shorter walk along the road. On my way I stopped at one of the hides that looks out across the lakes, as I was determined to learn to ID at least some of the ducks by the time I left.

As I settled down to sort the Teal from the Tufted Ducks I heard a noise that definitely wasn't a duck...

It was so loud that I turned round to see which bird had flown inside the hide, but there was nothing there. I looked outside around the door, but there was nothing there either. One final look inside and in the darkest topmost corner of the hide I saw four little yellow triangles bobbing up and down. A closer look revealed a tiny birds nest, with four even tinier baby birds cheeping away inside. This was lovely, but I still didn't know what that noise had been, and now I had the added mystery of what these were too!

Not wanting to disturb them I left the hide and settled down on the grass a few meters away from the entrance. I was hoping one of the parents would return to feed the babies. A couple of minutes past and I began to think it was time to go, but then the bushes by the hide rustled and I heard that song again...

Suddenly a small brown bird with a pointy tail hopped onto the top of the brambles, it was a wren! As quickly as it appeared it dashed into the hide, and then moments later back out and off into the woods to find more food for it's young. It hadn't even noticed me but I was enthralled.

I sat motionless, eagerly waiting for its return, completely absorbed in this tiny piece of nature. Every few minutes it returned and repeated its routine, singing in the bushes, hopping onto the brambles and then in, and out, of the hide and back off into the woods. I was transfixed and sat there watching for 10-15 minutes before I could drag myself away, back down the path in the calm summer evening, towards home, with a huge smile of my face.

After a day of membership events and meeting visitors, it was almost a shock to remember that reserves aren't about the people but the wildlife they protect and give homes to. I visited the hide, and saw the wren, a few more times before I finished at Fairburn, but none were as magical as that first chance encounter.

Moments with nature aren't always about rare, colourful or big species. The wren definitely isn't at 9-10 cm long and  the commonest UK breeding bird. The really special moments, that you carry with you forever, are the ones that take your breath away, that make you stop in your tracks and want to share it with everyone else. I did a lot of brilliant things at Fairburn, but the wren will always be my favourite memory.

Wednesday, 22 February 2012

A Day for Thoughts

A few weeks ago I talked about a job advert for an environment coordinator in the Guide Association. Back then I mentioned that this year's Thinking Day had an environmental theme, and now that day has arrived.

World Thinking Day was started back in 1926 and the date is special to both Guides and Scouts as it is the birthday of both Lord Baden-Powell and his wife Olave, the founders of the two movements. Each year young people (and adults!) around the world take some time to think about others in the organisations and give thanks for them.

This year's Thinking Day has the theme of the United Nations 7th Millennium Development Goal:
We can save our planet

and encourages groups around the globe to hold events and take actions to protect the world we live in and raise awareness of the impact our lifestyles have on others.

Climate change and other environmental catastrophes are a global problem. But it's a sad fact that they will affect the poorest, least developed regions and countries the hardest. Funds raised by today's events will go to helping projects and Guiding groups in these areas as well as setting up projects across the globe. it's important to remember that not recycling or leaving a light on here in the UK will cause terrible damage to other people in the world as well as wildlife and the environment.

Once today is over Guiding won't forget about the environment though, as I said in my earlier blog there are lots of environment projects around the world run and supported by guide groups. They are also sending a delegation to the Rio+20 conference this June, that will be the one our Prime Minister is too busy to attend.

This sustained commitment to educating others and changing our own lives to improve and protect our environment shows both the passion and people power that groups like Guiding has. So today, have a look at their website, get involved in an event or just take a moment to think about your impact and what you can do to save our planet.

Monday, 20 February 2012

Give It Up

All over the country (and world) today people will be making and eating pancakes. Yes, it's Shrove Tuesday and as sales of lemons, sugar and chocolate spread shoot up people will also be thinking about what they can give up for Lent.

The tradition of cooking pancakes the day before Ash Wednesday emerged because people were using up the rich flour, eggs, sugar and milk that they couldn't eat during the fasting period of Lent. In modern times very few people fast throughout the 40 days and nights but why not see how frugal you can be with food over the next month and a bit? You could try a leftovers dinner tonight, or make tons of pancakes and use them for part of dinner on the next day. Or see how cheaply/sparingly you can cook your meals for. Lots of foodie alternatives for Lent have turned up in recent years; not cooking, going veggie, going vegan, eating on a dollar a day and I'm sure you can find and think of more, so why not pick one and try it?

Alternatively you could pick something to give up that would green your life. I briefly considered giving up the car but it just isn't practical at the moment, too much volunteering going to remote no public transport areas. I will use Lent to have a new boost of cycling enthusiasm though, especially as it's getting lighter and lighter in the mornings now.

You could even turn the whole idea on its head and start a new habit for 40 days. Only use things that can be recycled or reused, buy one organic or Fairtrade item a day, turn the thermostat down a degree every week. Maybe take up a hobby that doesn't use electricity, like crochet or reading. There are so many possibilities it's a bit daunting just thinking about them all.

Whatever you decide to do, or not do, during Lent good luck. It's the little changes we each make (and the bigger ones the government does) that will help to turn the whole world green. Keeping something up for 40 days is hard enough but we just need the motivation and passion to keep us on the right track. The beautiful nature and environment around us, and the desire to protect it, might just be enough.


Time for a Change?

We all known shopping around can reveal a bargain but sometimes it takes a little more effort than we are willing to put in to find it. Last week I got my new copy of Green World magazine and when I opened it one of the leaflets that fell out caught my eye. It was from Ecotricity, the green energy company. Green Party members get a discount and so it seemed worth checking out. But as often happens other things got in the way and it slipped my mind, until today.

A friend sent me a link to the below video...

which led me to the Ecotricity website

In 1996 Ecotricity became the world's first green electricity company. Since 30% of Britain's carbon emissions come from conventional electricity production they decided this was the biggest single thing they could change for the better.

Using customers' energy bills new sources of green energy (windmills) are built and developed, generating more green energy to sell back to customers. As a not for profit company all spare money gets piled back into the projects, so costs stay as low as possible and do as much good as they can. You also have a chance to share the benefits with their EcoBonds initiative. 

It's not just electricity and gas they're interested in. Energy, transport and food account for 80% of the countries personal carbon footprint. So Ecotricity built Nemesis, Britain's first electric super car powered by the wind and then came the Electric Highway, the worlds first national network of charging stations ready for the electric car revolution. For food new farm energy ideas and a future wind powered tractor are in the pipelines so they're really trying to think of everything.

I haven't changed quite yet, but it's probably one of the biggest green things I could do in my life at the moment. Ecotricity promises to match the standard prices of the Big Six so it might not be any more expensive either. Definitely worth thinking about and not putting off until another day.

Sunday, 19 February 2012

Reserved Moments 2

Day two in my tale of reserve visits for the week and we were only just beginning. After Leighton Moss the day before we decided to stick a little closer to Preston for our next reserve. Did you guess what is was?

The new (ish) Wildlife Trust Brockholes reserve is familiar to me as I visit it almost weekly to volunteer. But as with many familiar places I've never really taken the time to properly explore it before. This week was the perfect opportunity so we took a map from the information centre on the floating visitor island and headed out into the unknown.

Pausing first on the floating island we looked at ducks and waders on the Meadow Lake that was previously a gravel pit. We walked round to the Number One Pit (which I didn't even realise existed until then) and looked at curlew, lapwings and lots and lots of gulls, mainly blackheaded but who knows what might have been hidden amongst them. A quick wander round the Meadow Trail and a visit to the shop (of course) made the visit complete and we headed off onto the third and final reserve.

Compared to Brockholes (free except for £2 parking) the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust Martin Mere centre seemed quite expensive at over £10 for an adult visit. It would have been free with membership but I don't visit often enough to really make it worthwhile. It is a lovely site though with a great cafe (a lunch of lasagne if you were wondering) and lots of rare and exotic wildfowl to look at within their captive bird area. The real interest comes from the wild though. Outside the fences that keep the captive birds in others fly free and clearly love Martin Mere for its habitat and abundance of food. From the hides we saw just under a thousand whooper swans and there were sightings of bewick and mute swans too. It wasn't just swans that were plentiful as hundreds of ducks swam around in the pools and lakes on site. Teal, pintail, mallard, widgeon and pochard were all there and I think I've finally got the hang of identifying them all.

Although the WWT only have 9 sites across the UK, and much of the wildlife feels tamer than you normally expect from a reserve they do know how to create or find wildlife spectacles on a grand scale. The swan feeding at 3pm would have been fantastic if we'd been able to stay for it.

It was fantastic to visit so many great places for nature in just two short days and I'm pleased to be reminded of the fantastic work the three organisations do for wildlife and people. There are reserves all over the country so who not visit one near you. Find a quiet walk, a new species or a great cafe and spend some time getting to know the nature near you.

Saturday, 18 February 2012

Reserved Moments 1

I've been to a lot of nature reserves in my life. They were, and are, a regular part of family holidays and days out. I now find myself seeking them out, even when I'm not with my parents, as places for peaceful walks, fantastic wildlife, old favourites and new discoveries.

So when my parents visited Preston this week it was hardly a surprise that nature reserves were on the to-do list for the trip. In fact, there was so much reserving done that I'm going to split it into two blogs. We went to three reserves in two days, can you guess which ones? The first was the RSPB's Leighton Moss which was new for me, tomorrow I'll reveal the other two, one each from the Lancashire Wildlife Trust and the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust. Any guesses, post a comment!

You can learn a lot about a reserve, without any leaflets, just by walking around it. I discovered that Leighton Moss is older than me, in fact it's 25 years older. How did I find this? A plaque on a hide told me, since the hide had been opened a few months after I was born to celebrate the reserve's silver jubilee. The thought that this piece of land has been managed for wildlife, to protect it and nurture it, with visitors from all over the place coming to visit for so many years is really humbling. When you start thinking about the plans, number of visitors and work that has been and will be, even on such a local level, your 3 hour visit seems quite insignificant.

As RSPB members we got in free to the reserve (a definite perk of membership) although having forgot my membership card they had to phone to check me out first! Once I was clear we walked through the reeds, past pools and bogs, to several hides. It's a beautiful landscape with hills of fields and woodland surrounding the little valley the reserve lies on. There was no sign of the Glossy Ibis although we looked hard and were assured by others that it was definitely around. The wetlands certainly weren't lacking birds though with heron, little egret and snow goose all easily seen as well as lots of different ducks (more on ducks tomorrow) and songbirds. We spent five minutes lurking by some reeds hoping the water rail which had been calling would emerge but it stayed well hidden.

Next it was time for another customary part of reserve visits, the cafe and the shop. RSPB (and other) cafes have improved immensely as I've grown up and I had a delicious sausage sandwich, broccoli soup and spiced berry hot drink, just what you need on a cold February day when out bird watching. A chance meeting with the reserve's manager Robin Horner revealed that otters have returned to the reserve in recent years and the other resident highlight, the bittern, is still around even if we didn't spot him this time.

It was a great day and since Silverdale train station is literally 2 minutes walk from the reserve entrance and only 40 minutes from Preston by train I hope I'll be back visiting the reserve soon!

Friday, 17 February 2012

Not So Veggie

Yesterday my first ever Meatbox from Riverford Organics arrived. We've still got lots of vegetables and fruit left form last week's box but I've been wanting to try out a meat box for months. Since I wasn't quite sure what to expect (even though it's quite detailed on the website!)  I settled on the Quick and Easy box with meat that can be cooked with minimum hassle for maximum enjoyment.

The box arrives as a sealed cardboard box and once opened has wool (in plastic) as a natural insulator surrounding reusable cool packs and the meat. Because reusing is even better than recycling you're asked to keep the packaging and cool packs and return them at your next delivery so they can be used again.

This week's box contained
  • 4 beef burgers 440g
  • 2 chicken breasts 300g
  • 2 pork shoulder steaks 450g
  • 6 pork sausages 450g
  • 2 beef grilling steaks 400g
and cost £29.95, but considering its all British, quite local and organic that's not bad. I don't know how long this lot will last us but the freezer's nice and full again and I'm looking forward to finding out. I'll let you know in a few weeks! 

Thursday, 16 February 2012

An Incredible Journey

Imagine spending half your time in the Arctic and half in sub Saharan Africa, it would be hard enough keeping track of which clothes you needed let alone anything else. Now imagine you're doing that, but you're only 25g and you have to make your own way between the two places. It seems near impossible but this is exactly what scientists have discovered Northern Wheatears do every year. The 46 birds which were studied were tracked by attaching tiny (1.4g) satellite devices which recorded position twice a day for 90 days. Prior to this research the bird's wintering ground was unknown.

These birds are particularly interesting to scientists because, taking size into account, they have one of the longest migrations of any bird and possibly the largest range of any songbird in the world. Their breeding grounds range across Eastern Canadian Arctic,Greenland, Eurasia and Alaska. Raising young in the Arctic is a feat in itself but then flying 15,000 km across the world to spend the winter is truly stunning.

File:Oenanthe oenanthe -Iceland-8.jpg
Copyright: Ómar Runólfsson
Hopefully this research will enable a better understanding of this incredible bird and will allow us to find new ways of protecting the fantastic wildlife around us.

Wednesday, 15 February 2012

Water, water everywhere?

We've only got one planet, and while we've got really good at making things from other things we still only have a limited supply of materials. When I think of resources I normally think of fossil fuels, wood, solar, wind and tidal energy and the raw metals we have. Eventually I expect I'd get to water, although it might take me a little while, but this essential resource should be right at the top of our list.

Water is vital for life, there's no denying that and fresh water is what we really need, although we can make it from salt-water with effort, energy and time. In the UK, unless it's a very hot, dry summer, we assume that when we turn on a tap water will come out, no problem. It rains a lot (or feels like it) in the UK too, so we wouldn't expect to be importing water from abroad. But are we?

Maybe not in bottles or tanks but as a large importer of food and commodities the UK actually brings in a lot more water from abroad than we'd first expect. The below map shows water exports and imports by country between 1996 and 2005. Other than the UK there are a few surprises, Australia exports more water than it imports and Europe is a lot redder than Africa. But it's important to keep in mind that this isn't a list of where water is needed, just where it's being taken from and where it's going too. So while Australia suffered from droughts throughout the 00s it was still exporting water out of the country and while Germany is a green and leafy land it imports lots of water.

Water footprint

As the effects of climate change take effect water will only become a more precious commodity for life around the globe. There are many ways to save water at source and in our homes but it's also worth thinking about the effect on water that our weekly shopping has.

Tuesday, 14 February 2012

Green Love

For weeks the shops have been filled with red and pink gifts, cards and special offers. St Valentine's Day is less of a religious occasion and more of a mass plastic commercial holiday nowadays. Almost as bad as at Christmas time we are bombarded with emotive adverts telling us that the only way to show our true feelings to our loved ones is to buy this particular item, normally plastic and not often long-lasting.

While I really hate all that commercial pressure I always end up trawling through the suggested gifts in supermarket magazines, TV adverts and shop shelves, trying to find the most ridiculous gift of the year. This time pink and silver mini glitter larva lamp, oven gloves (red and white pattern to fit with the special day) and electric razor are some of the highlights. As weird as they are at least two of these are useful gifts and are likely to get used more than once. If the larva lamp makes it past three uses I'll be impressed, but maybe someone out there will treasure it for life.

My Valentines preparation has probably been my greenest ever. I selected an eco-friendly card weeks ago (for once not shopping last minute) which uses recycled paper and plant based inks. For presents (since he won't be reading this blog until after we've swapped gifts!) I chose home made and local produce. A big jar full of home made chocolate brownies, made with Fair-trade chocolate and some bottles of Lancashire Red ale and Blushes cider, both locally produced and both with a red theme specially for the day. And once they're gone, and the bottles are recycled, there's nothing left to fill up the house with other than memories, which are much better than mini glitter lava lamps anyway.

Monday, 13 February 2012

New Growth

We seem to be out of the cold spell for the moment and as the weather warms Preston returns to its normal mild, rainy climate. I didn't quite make it for a walk this week. Other than a cold and lots of rain I don't really have an excuse but I did make it far enough to take a photo of the canal. It really doesn't look appealing! 

While the banks still look bare and brown there are things growing. Lots of shoots are popping out of the undergrowth and before long there will be buds and catkins on the trees. At least the ice has gone so the wildlife has easy access to water again.

There is lots growing at home too. My crocuses have burst into life and flowers seem to be popping open every day. 

At this time of year I'm always tempted to go and buy daffodils or tulips from the shops to brighten the house up, but I've heard that bought cut flowers have a high carbon footprint. This year I'm going to look into this, so there'll be a flower blog coming soon! I hope I can find some eco friendly blooms to brighten the last few weeks of winter. For now the purple and white crocuses on our window sill make me smile whenever I walk past, certainly worth the wait as the grew for the last two months.

Sunday, 12 February 2012

Big Badger's Day Out

Yesterday was Big Badger's Day Out, the yearly conference for Wildlife WATCH Leaders in the Lancashire Wildlife Trust. It's a great opportunity to meet other leaders, share ideas and learn new activities.

As my first conference everything was new and exciting. After the introduction and WATCH news from the previous year we split into groups for the morning's workshops. My first one was Wild Play, an hour of trying out activities that use natural materials and your imagination to make nature come to life. We had a magical photo treasure hunt finding dragons, trolls and unicorns in the woodland around us, made a giant hedgehog out of leaves and sticks on the forest floor and learnt some new games that don't need any equipment at all. It was a cold morning but with lots of laughter and fun.

After a delicious lunch we moved on to our afternoon workshops. A really useful hour learning about updating and improving your group's WATCH website. It was great for me as I hadn't been on the WATCH website much before. It's got so many great resources for activities and it will be great for keeping everyone up to date on group events.

There were two other workshops that I didn't get to go to, one on marine activities and one on how teenagers can be included in WATCH meetings. I'm sure they were great too.

The end of the day was spent sharing resources, new ideas and stories between leaders. It was lovely to meet so many enthusiastic volunteers with great ideas for activities and really motivating. I can't wait for our group to get going in the next few months!

Thanks to everyone who helped organise the day, it was a great way to spend a Saturday!

Saturday, 11 February 2012

Songs of Darkness

Blackbird singing in the dead of night...

This first line of Blackbird by The Beatles seems to lack some basic ornithological knowledge. Blackbirds aren't nocturnal...are they?

Well they're not really but I often hear them in the darkness on early mornings on my way to work, in fact they're often noisier than any other city sounds. This strange behaviour of singing at night isn't limited to just blackbirds either, robins are well known for it and other songbirds can be heard in urban areas if you listen hard enough in the hours before dawn.

It's thought that all this night time noise is because the birds are trying to avoid completing with rush hour traffic during their normal singing hours. The daytime racket humans make means that possible mates are unable to hear the serenades of birds and so they have adapted to sing when it's quieter. Another argument is that the birds are singing during the day and at night, they're just giving up on other activities such as feeding or preening to put effort into finding that all important mate.

They've changed their urban songs in other ways too. Several years ago it was found that birdsong across Europe was higher pitched when competing with the sounds of traffic in the background. So the effect we're having on our neighbours isn't just physical, such as creating huge "cliffs" (tower blocks) for birds of prey to nest on or removing important woodland for new builds but also environmental with sound and light pollution too. This is a great example of how even the smallest of actions (like driving to work), when done by large groups, can have a drastic affect on the wildlife and environment around us.

Wildlife has an effect on us too of course. One of my very early blogs was about how good for you a walk in the country or near some tree or green space can be. It's true and whenever I'm feeling fed up a walk will almost always cure most of my bad moods. Birdsong in particular turns up again and again in our culture, in poetry, stories, folklore and of course song. But does it give us anything other than occasional creative inspiration?

A new study by the University of Surrey's Department of Psychology plans to spend three years looking at the impact of birdsong on behaviour and the brain. There's lots of anecdotal evidence to show that birdsong lifts our moods and helps us to link memories and places but this study should be able to give us some more concrete scientific data on the subject and perhaps open new doors into treatments of mental illness and health benefits. Just another reason why protecting out wildlife is so important, we don't know what good it's doing us yet!

Friday, 10 February 2012

Tasty Foods

My last veg box delivery before St Valentine's Day, but I can't say the contents cast up thoughts of complicated romantic meals, more of hot stews and home made soups but with the current weather I think that's a good thing!

This week we had apples and clementines as well as our normal veg box which contained
Potatoes (UK)
White Onions (UK)
Carrots (UK)
Mushrooms (UK)
Tomatoes (ES)
Broccoli (ES)

definitely some good soup ingredients to keep us warm during this cold snap.

On another green food topic it's Green Week at the University of Central Lancashire in Preston. For students and staff there are lots of green events including a local produce faire (I can vouch  for the ginger honey made the other side of Penwortham!), Wildlife Trust seed giveaway and tips on how to reduce your carbon impact. There were also some zebra burgers, not sure how green they were but they certainly got people talking! 

Thursday, 9 February 2012

What's in a Name?

On my way to work yesterday I noticed far more birds than usual. There were quite common ones such as Goldfinch, Plover, Linnet and Rook. There were also some more unusual ones; Kingfisher, Falcon, Albatross and Penguin. A quick look online later showed if I'd wandered a little off my route I would have seen Wren, Dove and Bullfinch too.

As you have probably guessed, I'm not talking about real birds. These are all street names in an area of Preston where the planners clearly wanted to add a bit of a natural feel. Below is a map of the area with the ornithologically named streets highlighted in yellow.

I don't know why bird names were decided upon but it is nice to discover a little bit of wildlife thinking in a fairly urban area. I wonder how they picked the names. It can't be common UK birds, unless the albatross and penguin have a very secret history I'm unaware of! Maybe there was a competition to choose favourite bird names, and so several common birds got in with a few unusual favourites too. I'm not sure when the streets were built or named, the houses look quite old but it's hard to tell. It would be interesting to find out and look up the most common birds of the time to see if they matched the names. I doubt Bullfinch or Plover would be high on a list today but penguin might well be. 

Of the UK birds in my street list I'm pleased to discover many have Green List status. A few, such as the Bullfinch and Kingfisher are Amber and a couple such as the Linnet are on the Red List meaning their UK numbers and breeding rates are in serious decline in the past 25 years. 

It's sad to think that at some point someone might have named Linnet Street because it was a common, popular bird and now it's in real danger of disappearing from our lives.On the other hand maybe they called it that to raise awareness of the plight of the Linnet, who knows. These historical signposts point to a time when we were much more connected with our environment and I'd love to see more streets and places named after wildlife. Why not Oak Avenue, Hedgehog Close or Stickleback Way? It would make journeys much more exciting, my bird name streets certainly brighten my day.  

Wednesday, 8 February 2012

Spring Light

There are definite signs of spring around, even if it's three weeks until the official start of the season. My window sill crocuses have started to flower and I'm enjoying guessing what colour each flower will be. So far there's one purple and a few close to opening. I also saw my first daffodil of the year on Monday, soon they'll be everywhere!

Yesterday I cycled to work in daylight for the first time this year and although it was very frosty it was lovely to see the park lit up, not in shadowy darkness. Not quite light when I cycle home yet but it will be soon. Maybe it's time to start thinking about the Lighter Later campaign again.

If you haven't heard of it this campaign here's the basic idea: We lose lots of sunlight in the mornings when we're asleep in the summer, and turn the lights on when we're awake in the evenings. So if we shift the clocks forward by one hour throughout the entire year we would move an hour of daylight from the morning through to the evening, when more of us are awake to enjoy it.

It's a novel idea and one with lots of support, including David Mitchell, and maybe it will be one of the government's leading environmental policies as they lead as the "greenest government ever". But the week hasn't got off to a great start for new Secretary of State (for Energy and Climate Change) Ed Davey as a report revealed yesterday that the UK's carbon emissions went up for the first time in 7 years in 2010. Probably due to the severely cold winters but it's probably not the headline's he wanted in his first week!

Tuesday, 7 February 2012

Learning for the Future

One of the arguments for lowering the voting age is that younger voters chose candidates based on long term issues like the environment. They look to the future and want forward thinking policies which will protect them in the decades to come. Older voters know they won't reap the benefits of very long term planning, so tend to have more immediate demands of their representative- I said tend, not always and not everyone!

It doesn't look like the voting age will be lowered in the near future, and I'm not sure the above argument  is a good enough one to do so, but it's still important to educate young people on environmental issues. Then, when they reach eighteen, they'll have the facts they need to understand that short term voting isn't always enough to secure a safe future.

Recently I've seen lots of great environmental education from recycling with four year olds to twenty-something green student groups. It's brilliant to see the enthusiasm on people's faces as they discuss these difficult issues, and it's really motivating watching sensible debates on the solutions, whether it's discussions on Green Party campaign issues or what can be made out of plastic recycling rubbish.

Yesterday I helped out with a Lancashire Wildlife Trust school visit, running workshops on recycling for children from reception up to year six. The children learnt a lot, and I learnt a few things too! I now know that old wellies can be turned into chair seats, plastic cups into rulers and plastic bags into notebook covers. They learnt all this and how paper is made (they got to try it too), where their rubbish goes and how they can reduce their landfill waste. Not bad for a few hours and a whole school.

At the other end of the spectrum I'm looking forward to some of the Young Green events at the Green Party's Spring Conference in Liverpool at the end of the month. I'm hoping to learn lots myself, both about the Party and some green issues that are new to me. You're never to old to learn especially when it comes to protecting our future.

Monday, 6 February 2012

A New Face

Monday's are often stressful. First day back after a nice weekend, not really wanting to get up on a cold February morning. So I wonder whether Edward Davey will be bounding out of bed with enthusiasm or hiding under the covers this morning.

It's his first day in a new job, Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change. There's a lot of work to do too and it doesn't look like it's going to be easy. As a key member of the "greenest government ever" I'm sure Mr Davey will be working as hard as possible to create green jobs for our economy, support renewable energy developments and prevent catastrophic climate change. It's not often that your job includes "saving the world" as one of the aims-maybe more should.

I hope Mr Davey gets lots done and I hope all of the rest of the cabinet support him and the coalition's aims to better the environment. All eyes will be on the newest member of the cabinet this week but after the news has moved on it will be interesting to see if promises are kept and targets are met.

Good luck Mr Davey, I hope you have a good first day at work!

Sunday, 5 February 2012

Ice Ice Baby

Preston might be the only place in the country without snow but it's still very, very cold here this weekend. Last night we had freezing conditions and lots of rain resulting in ice everywhere.

Icicles grew on our wheelie bin, the bird feeders and even the car doors while other cars in the street were completely encased with ice that had frozen as soon as it hit the vehicle. Trees were also covered, but only on the side the rain was hitting which looked very odd indeed.

A little further into town, after a wobbly walk over ice covered paths, we found some very cold hedges, completely covered in icicles. In fact, every inch of the plants were covered in ice and, with care, you could peel a perfect ice leaf off the top of the frozen foliage. Holding it by the icicle edge you could even see all the veins along the leaf in the ice, it was fantastic!  It's a bit tricky to take a good photo of ice, but we tried anyway!

Even without snow covered streets the walk along the canal this afternoon was still nice. The canal was about an inch thick with ice and there was a flurry of wildlife activity.

The air was full of birdsong and we saw lots of pairs of blackbirds hopping around together. Highlights were definitely the dunnock and linnet we saw in the trees on the edge of the canal and some fields. Plant life is also around, even in the cold, with lots and lots of snow drops to be seen in gardens and along the paths. There were also some mysterious shoots along the path. I'm looking forward to finding out what they are later in the year. It almost feels like spring's on the way, except for the below zero temperatures coming up all this week!

Saturday, 4 February 2012

Winter Wonderland?

The last month of winter looks set to be the coldest of all with temperatures plummeting below -11 degrees centigrade this week.  I know many people want to avoid snow disruptions over the weekend but I'm hoping for at least a little snow in the next few days.

First thing yesterday morning I was at Brockholes nature reserve admiring the frost covered trees and the inch thick ice on the large lake. It was absolutely beautiful and I wish I'd taken my camera along for some good close up shots. Despite the bitterly cold temperatures (even in scarf, gloves, coat and boots) there was wildlife to see. Swans, geese and ducks were negotiating the sheets of ice near the unfrozen river and the bird table was covered in finches, tits, and a few bigger surprises like pheasant and a crow.

When cold hits the country its tempting to close the door tight and snuggle up inside in the warm but it's a great time to get out and see wildlife at its harshest and most impressive. The battle for survival against the cold forces lots of of normally shy animals into the open so you might even see more than normal-if you brave the cold.

And even though the Big Garden Birdwatch is over for another year don't forget to keep filling your bird feeders. It's also brilliant if you put some fresh, unfrozen water out for them too as it's hard to find in when it's so cold. These little things could mean the difference between life and death for your local birds so it's well worth doing!

Friday, 3 February 2012

Future Savings

Is it cheaper or more expensive being green?

Sometimes I think it's cheaper; eating leftover meals and making sure nothing goes to waste, cycling to work and not spending money on petrol.

Sometimes I think it's more expensive; buying organic and fairtrade products, using recycled paper and buying ethical clothing.

I don't know which it is overall but I do know it often feels like the easy, cheap choice is the non-green one. A nice top from Primark, cheap bottle of wine, ready made salad flown in from Chilli are all easy nice options but with hidden (and not so hidden) ethical and environmental costs. Other times it feels like you're saving money but losing time. Walking to meetings and shopping around for the best ethical options means that you begin to lose that nice green glow because you're fed up and short on time.

So if it's more expensive and takes longer, why do it? Well I think it's all about savings. Sometimes it's important to save money, sometimes it's important to save time and sometimes it's important to save habitats, species, resources and the future. In our busy, fast-paced society it's hard to think long term, but we have to act today to save tomorrow (how many times has that been said?!) so I keep trying to take the green option whenever I can. It doesn't always work but if I can end the day knowing I've tried my best that's better than not trying at all. And there are always those lovely days where you manage to save time, money and the world all at once.

Thursday, 2 February 2012

Green Girl Guide

A friend sent me an advert for the job of Environment Project Co-ordinator yesterday. Can you guess what organisation it's for?

It's not the RSPB, Wildlife Trusts, Buglife, Green Party, Plantlife, Friends of the Earth, Natural England or Defra. It's not even an environment or conservation organisation, so not my usual job hunting place at all. In fact  it's an organisation I made a promise to over 15 years ago, it's the World Association of Girl Guides and Girl Scouts.

It's foolish to think that the only groups doing green work are the ones that are set up specifically for that purpose. Many groups in many countries run green projects including schools, Guide and Scout groups, churches, community groups as well as industry, producers (like Stella in yesterday's blog) and other businesses. It's important that everyone takes responsibility for their environmental impact as individuals, groups and a society and we should be pushing businesses and government to follow the great lead so many people are already taking. The World Association of Girl Guides and Girl Scouts covers so many countries and reaches into so many communities that  I'm sure their environment projects will be having a huge impact internationally already.

I'm really pleased to see that the Guiding Thinking Day has a green topic this year and I'm sure I'll be talking about that again in a few weeks. 

Wednesday, 1 February 2012

What's Right In Front Of You

 Writing a green blog every day often means I'm looking for environment and nature stories in everything and everywhere. But sometimes it really is right in front of your eyes, exactly where you're not expecting to find it.

When I was putting some recycling away I found I was looking at the back of a Stella Artois bottle. Normally not very exciting but in big letters in the middle it said 
75% recycled glass
 Help us increase this level by recycling your bottle.

and on the website there's lots of interesting facts and plans about how Stella are going to keep making their products more eco friendly. Have a look, I've never thought about beer or beer bottles in so much detail before!

Later in the day I was writing myself a note when I noticed the writing on the pen itself. It said

made using  biodegradable corn starch.

I've had corn starch pens before and I think it's a great substitute for petrol based plastic ones. They're easier to recycle/dispose of as they're biodegradable, and so they decompose in the soil quickly. In the past I've even had pens which have seeds in the lid so that you can just plant it all once it's out of ink and get plants back.

It's amazing the environment facts that are all around, even when you're not looking, and it's fantastic to see eco friendly products out in the market being used by mainstream companies who are trying to green their lives too. I wonder what eco products you can find lurking in your home.