Monday, 30 April 2012

Dinner's On The Table

After seven months in Preston and only three bird species in the garden I'm trying a new tactic. I've bought a new bird feeder which will hopefully get the sparrows to stay in the garden for longer and encourage other birds in. 

Having noticed that the sparrows enjoy hopping around on the concrete floor of our yard I decided to go for a bird table, but lacking space I was pleased to find this hanging one at the RSPB Ribble Discovery Centre in Lytham. I'm hoping my sparrows will enjoy their new toy and I'll get to see more wildlife outside my window!

Friday, 27 April 2012


Oxfam and Marks and Spencer have been working together for years. I shop at both which made their old scheme, where you could trade in M&S chothes at Oxfam for an M&S voucher, very appealing.
Yesterday I saw their newest partnership plans, shwopping.

How many clothes are sat in your wardrobe which are never worn? Too big, too small, not your style anymore, never really was your style? Why not free up some space for a new must have item, now when you go shopping at M&S take along an old item of clothing and hand it in, it doesn't even have to be from M&S. The clothes get sold on again or recycled and any profits go to Oxfam.

Their aim is to donate and recycle as many clothes as they sell which would be fantastic. It's time for a fashion revolution and I love it. But if I haven't convinced you watch the video below, I'm sure Joanna Lumley can. Let's get Shwopping!

Wednesday, 25 April 2012

Green Government Must Try Harder

Last week I joined a campaign asking David Cameron to lead like a Prime Minister should, to have a world vision and to look beyond the current economic problems to the next 50 or 100 years. I emailed the Prime Minister asking him to commit to a reduction of 30% (rather than 20%) of our carbon emissions from 1990 levels by 2020 in a high profile speech next week. We're already on target to exceed our current 20% target so why not aim higher, especially when environmental bodies are telling us that we desperately need to to avoid dangerous climate change?

If you want to show your support and let Mr Cameron know how  important the environment is just click here.

Mr Cameron was scheduled to present this keynote speech tomorrow, but suddenly I'm reading that this will now only be introductory remarks before a meeting. This doesn't look great. Another news story along these lines are today's comments from the International Energy Agency about the lack of leadership and action from governments. They need to act now and they need to act bigger seems to be the message, but its not impossible, we have the technologies waiting we're just not using them.

Read more about this here  and sign up to the campaign above!

Monday, 23 April 2012

Nutty Recycling

I love it when you find great new uses for what would otherwise be rubbish. My favourite example is Nutella jars. I love the chocolate spread but I only ever buy the small jars. Normally I'd go for the biggest jar so that less packaging is used per product but for me the Nutella is really a side product. It's the fantastic jars you're left with once you've finished that I want. Take off the lid and wash away the paper and you're left with a perfect juice jar. And we all know reusing is much better than recycling!

Friday, 20 April 2012

Charity Matters

I'm back to greening my finances and this week I've been researching charity credit cards. These seem like a great way to help your favourite charity while you shop but is it the best way?

I've been looking at the co-op's credit cards (because they're often top of the ethical banking lists) and it's good to see nine great charities being supported. When you sign up your chosen charity get between £15 and £20 and most get an extra £2.50 when you use your card in the first 6 months. After that 25p will be donated whenever you spend or transfer £100 on the account. This all sounds great, but after reading a few articles on the internet I wasn't so sure. This website points out that if you chose a high reward (non-charity) card you can sometimes get 20 times as much money back-which you can then donate to your chosen charity and by signing up to Gift Aid it can go even further.

So, if you're willing to save up your cash rewards, and then remember to donate them each month it's probably best to go for a high rewards card rather than a charity card. But that's only considering the money side, and to be honest, I find it hard enough to track my finances without making another payment for myself each month. What I like about charity cards is that they get people talking. Whether it's the charity being able to cite the number of supporters they have through the scheme (an important tool for campaigning) or catching someone's interest when you pay for your petrol. It's amazing how many conversations an unusual looking card starts and then you can become an advocate for that charity, just by explaining what it does and why you think it's an important cause to support.

So, when I pick my credit card I think I'll go for a charity card, not just because it's an easy way to donate to charity (although if I'm going to have a credit card it's nice to know its doing good) but because it helps raise awareness of issues and get people talking about them and I can't put a price on that.

Wednesday, 18 April 2012

A Slimy Problem

My gardening efforts have had mixed results over the past few weeks. Indoor efforts have been great; the chilli plants which were seeds last autumn are now sprouting lots and growing thick stems and my sweet pea hanging basket has got plants big enough to brave the outside-I hope they do as well on the wall as they've done inside so far.

One of the reasons I'm nervous about putting my sweetpeas outside is the slugs/snails which seem to have been devouring certain plants on the flower bed. Hopefully they wont get as far up the wall as the hanging basket. With my first summer of gardening I am learning first hand of the battles and enemies of all gardeners. Slugs are my biggest worry but this morning we found a local cat has chosen our flower bed as it's new toilet-a fact I wouldn't mind except it apparently involves digging up lots of soil and carefully planted seeds!

I've been told that putting pepper out on the soil discourages cats so we'll have to see if that works. If not there's not much else we can do as other people's pets are part of urban life really. The slugs however pose a bigger dilemma. The budding gardener in me wants to cover the soil in slug pellets to protect both my established plants and also my seeds but the wildlife lover and keen green part of me hates the idea.

Killing slugs doesn't seem fair. They're not damaging a vital food source, just disturbing my plan for a pretty garden. All they are doing is finding delicious foods near their home and eating it. If I could find a way of deterring them without killing them it would be great-maybe I should plant some yummy plants just for them, to attract them and move them away from the plants I want to keep. I've found some very interesting suggestions for dealing with slugs here.

On top of it not being fair to the slugs, using slug pellets harms other, more wanted, wildlife. The little balls of poison, designed for slugs, can be just as easily eaten by birds, hedgehogs (not that we're lucky enough for these) or pets (not a pleasant way to fix my cat problem). I'd much rather endure slug attacks than find one of my very few garden birds killed off by my gardening methods. I have found this advert for eco-friendly slug pellets but I'm still not convinced. So, while I make my mind up I'll just have to hope they go for my flower bed and not my precious sweetpeas. At least the chilli plants should be safe!

Monday, 16 April 2012

A Life Without Laptops

Today is a day off for me but it's not a day for relaxing. I've got a to-do list with 20 or so different things on it that need doing sooner rather than later (mostly because I've been putting the not urgent ones off so long that they've become urgent now!). It's no surprise to me that most of these things are computer related; whether it's replying to an email, doing online banking or researching future projects. Only 5 things on my list have nothing to do with a computer, and even then two of them are phone calls. 

Sometimes technology amazes me, like when I walk virtually through a town to check directions before I visit a place, but more and more my laptop and phone are becoming things of guilt, weighing me down with all the things I need to do and people I have to reply to. Almost everyone I know has a laptop nowadays, many have laptops, work laptops and phones with internet. It's getting harder and harder to disconnect from the wonders of the web with new updates flashing in every few minutes and pages being refreshed for up to the second news. But how much good is it doing us all?

I may be part of the last generation who remembers their first family computer as something purely for games. Before internet (or at least before children used the internet) the computer was just another toy, something that switched off once you were done. And now I often long to hide my computers and phone away at weekends and just do actual stuff, not virtual stuff. Planting flowers, cooking cakes, going for walks, even just washing up! Time without technology is a rare and precious moment for me now. If all the personal computers in the world were turned off, how much energy would we save? Since laptops are quite efficient machines I expect individually not very much, but with millions of them globally I'm sure it would have an impact. And I think people might be a little happier with a little less screen time too. 

Technology's not evil, in fact I don't think it can even be described as completely bad for the environment. How many meetings are now done via Skype rather than driving to offices and how much paper is saved by emails, online documents and ebooks? It's also been fantastic for finding out more about our environment and how to protect it. Some of the best green campaigns I've seen have been online ones, like this, this and this. But we need to make sure we don't forget the real world too. I wouldn't want a life without laptops, but a little more time doing and less time staring at screens would be nice. So, I'm going to finish this to-do list and then get out into the real world again, doing things that don't need electricity like crafts, walks and feeding the birds. Why not break free from your technology for a little while today, see how free you feel! 

Friday, 13 April 2012

Green Fashion

Shopping for ethical, sustainable clothes isn't easy. There are several options; charity shopping (this I love), online specialist green boutiques (can be expensive but also often the styles are a little odd!) or finding those few special items in high street shops which have green credentials. Over the last few years high street green shopping has been getting easier though. In the past I've blogged about Fairtrade tops in Sainsburys and I've sometimes found organic cotton tops in Tesco's too.

Yesterday I caught the very end of an H&M advert on TV and saw the words ORGANIC written in big letteres across the screen. I've never thought of H&M as a particularly green company before but after a quick look online I discover that they're trying very hard to be one.

H&M started including organic cotton into its ranges back in 2007 and has now launched its Conscious Collection using organic hemp and committing itself to having 100% sustainable cotton sources by 2020.
They've also recently released their 2011 Conscious Actions Sustainability Report which reveals themselves as the biggest user of organic cotton in the world (7.6% is organic so far) and that sales of their "EU Flower" eco-labelled garments increased by 26 %. The company saved over 300 million litres of water throughout their denim production compared to 2010 last year and carbon emissions were down  by 5% relative to sales by cutting air transport and improving energy efficiency in stores.

These are all fantastic improvements, and hopefully there will be many more to come in future years. I'm glad I caught the end of that advert, I doubt I would have found out about all these green ideas otherwise. I'll be much more likely to buy clothes from H&M now, both because I want to buy ethical clothes and because I want to support an organisation that's trying to be greener.  I just wish I liked any of their new range, maybe I'll like the next one more!

Wednesday, 11 April 2012

The Best Things In Life

Free things are great. Getting that little extra, unexpected something always makes my day. Whether it's a free sample of something new in my veg box or a visit to a museum that turns out to be free when I was expecting to pay.

The best things in life are free and that includes a walk in the park, hearing a blackbird's song and watching the tide come in. Nature's full of fantastic free moments that make your day and lift your spirits. but who pays for nature?

Some of our taxes go to protecting nature but not that many of them. Some of us contribute to wildlife charities who save wild spaces for us to enjoy and for wildlife to thrive in but shouldn't we all be paying to look after nature? Everyone has a favourite wildlife moment whether it's seeing your first robin in the garden or discovering a  group of fox cubs at dawn. The benefits that nature gives up are uncountable; fresh air, clean water, space to run and all those fantastic moments. The economic benefits are huge too; tourism, resources, and the health benefits from outside exercise which are even prescribed on the NHS.
We can't put a fixed value on our nature, because it's priceless, and it should be free for us all to enjoy but we should all be finding ways to pay for its protection too. Whether it's getting involved in volunteering projects, joining charities or lobbying politicians to make sure we put as much value on a strong environment as we do on a strong economy or a good education system.

Monday, 9 April 2012

A Day Out Hiding

How long have you ever spent in a hide on a nature reserve? Half an hour, an hour, maybe several hours if there was something really special to watch.

On Saturday I spent eight hours working in Sandgrounders Hide at the RSPB's Marshside reserve, just outside Southport. As well as all the really friendly people I met, there were some great wildlife moments and a few surprises too. Staying for the whole day meant I got to see the rhythms and patterns behind the different species  on the marshes and also had the best chance of seeing everything, it's true that patience pays off. Whether it's five minutes or five hours it's great to get outside and back into nature so here are my tips for visiting the Marshside reseve.

Five minute pause:
Watch the many, many black headed gulls on the islands. You've probably seen them lots before but here is a good opportunity to see lots together and all their different habits, bathing, fighting, feeding and preening. There's also the beautiful black-tailed godwits feeding around the pools, which are just coming into their chestnut summer plumage.

Thirty minute sit down:
The reserve's iconic avocets are back and six of these lovely birds were pairing up and regularly feeding meters away from the hide windows during the day. Seeing avocets so close was a brilliant experience and it's well worth sitting down and waiting  a few minutes for them to come back if they're not there at first.

Two hour stake out:
Look out for merlins swooping over the marsh on the hunt for prey (all the gulls flying up in a panic is normally a good clue) and search the thousands of black headed gulls for rarities like the three mediterranean gulls we saw on Saturday. They look like black headed gulls, but with blacker heads, redder beaks and they look like they have white mascara too!

If you don't fancy sitting down in a hide, you can go for a walk round the reserve too and look for the pink-footed geese, white fronted geese and golden plovers that are in the surrounding fields. However long you have this week, and where ever you decide to go, find some nature and enjoy it!

Friday, 6 April 2012

New Growth

There's one problem with growing plants from seed that I always forget; how can you tell is the new shoots are the plants you want, or weeds?! At the moment our flower bed is looking lovely and bright with all the big plants we put in a few weeks ago and now a few of the seeds are beginning to sprout too. Some are obvious, others have leaves that look just like the weeds that were there before. But at least something's growing, and if some do turn out to be weeds we can always pull them up later on in the season.

After the success of my lettuce last autumn I've decided to try growing another plant for food, runner beans. So today I planted out 24 beans into warm, damp soil, and we'll just have to wait a few weeks to see how they do. I love the colour of the plants as they grow and the gorgeous orangey-red flowers through the summer. Even if I don't get any beans I'll enjoy having the plants. Does anyone have any tips for growing beans? I've planted them out in large pots (12 beans in each) and I'm going to grow them up trellises against two walls (one south facing, one west facing).

With all the buds on the trees at the moment mushrooms aren't something I think about very much in spring. But we found some very interesting looking ones by a footpath into town yesterday. You can just about make them out in the picture below, the thin brown pointy things among the dead leaves! I've no idea what type they are though, any guesses?

Wednesday, 4 April 2012

The Bee Side

In the past few years there have been lots of news stories about the UK's declining bee numbers. Lots of stories but not many strong ideas about why they might be doing so badly.

Bees are essential for lots of things; including polinating farm crops. Unfortunately, several recent surveys seem to suggest that modern farming methods may be partly responsible for these lovely insects decline. Neonicotinoids are pesticides used in over 100 nations on both farms and in gardens. This widespread use could explain the drop in bee numbers as a UK team have found that the pesticides cause a 85% decrese in queen production, and less queens means less hives in the next year.

Pesticides are meant to remove insects harmful to crops and gardens, but in those countries that have seen a decline in bees there has been a marked decline in crop yeilds too. With natural pollination calculated to be worth around £430m to the national economy this may be one environmental issue George Osborne will pay attention to.

Monday, 2 April 2012

Now For Something Not Quite Completely Different

When I moved to Preston six months ago I wanted to gain experience in the environment sector, so I started volunteering for three different organisations, the Green Party, The Lancashire Wildlife Trust and Buglife. It's been a brilliant few months and as well as meeting some fantastic people I've learnt lots too: including how to make a bivouac, how local political  groups work and how to write grant applications. With all that volunteering fresh in my mind I'm excited to be starting a new role. From tomorrow I'll be working for the RSPB as their Membership Development Assistant for the Ribble area. So if you live in the area you might see me around at local, and not so local, events in the near future, keep your eyes peeled!

With all the excitement of the new job there will be less time for blogging, so I've decided to go for quality over quantity and from today I'll be blogging three times a week, on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays. I hope you still enjoy my posts and keep reading!

My volunteering experiences have been great over the last six months and I want to thank everyone I've met for making me feel welcome and giving me useful things to do! For anyone looking at starting a career in the environment sector I can't suggest anything better than getting stuck in and volunteering to find out what it's really like and if you really love it.

On a slightly different topic I went for a walk round Moor Park in Preston today. With buds coming out everywhere it might not be the easiest time to ID trees (or maybe it is I have no idea) but we had a go and found a surprising number of different species. Horse chestnut, cherry and beech were quite easy but there was one that was a bit perplexing with fury grey underside of the leaves and a green shiny top. At first from a distance I thought the buds were willow catkins but up close they were fresh leaves poking out. After carefully looking through our Britain and European Tree book, and then looking things up online, we decided it was a white poplar. You learn something new every day! Using the RSPB Handbook to British Birds we also confirmed that the great view of a little brown and white bird was in fact a tree creeper. A lovely walk!

Sunday, 1 April 2012

Green Milk

Today's been a day in the kitchen. We've been turning all those lovely Riverford organic ingredients into delicious meals for the next few weeks. A huge vat of bolognese sauce, a Thai chicken curry and a slow cooker full of beef and bean stew. They're all ready to be put into the freezer and then we can eat them whenever we like! I wonder if we'll even use the cooker this week.

We had to buy a few extra ingredients and while we were at the shops I was reminded of a green quandary that I've been mulling over for months. What's the most eco-friendly container for milk?

I think the obvious (and probably right!) answer is glass bottles, unless you can get it straight from the dairy to your cup which is tricky for most of us. Glass can be recycled efficiently and isn't a petroleum based product like plastic. In fact glass milk bottles are very often superheated to clean them and reused the next day, which is even better than recycling. But glass bottles aren't often sold in shops as they're heavy to transport and not easy to stack. The only place I ever see them are on milk vans, and unfortunately at the moment finances don't allow the luxury of a milk man to our house; although I often see one when I leave very early for work.

Plastic bottles are probably the most common container and it's what we always get. They're convenient for pouring, can be recycled and stand up nicely in the fridge. But they are made from hydrocarbons and so rely on fossil fuels for production. The less fossil fuels we use the better and so the less plastic packaging we use the better. This is the thinking behind selling milk in thin plastic bags instead of bottles and having a jug in your fridge into which you empty the bag once you get home from shopping.

Having had a look on the internet there seem to be some very complicated ways of using milk bags. See this video from the BBC news website. I think the easiest way to use them is to just make a small hole in the bag and squeeze or pour the milk into the jug.

When I've seen these bags in the past I've always thought they looked great, but never quite got round to buying them. But the plastic the bags use doesn't look very recyclable. It looks like the thin film you get on food products that can't be recycled. So I wonder if it is actually more green than plastic bottles. It must need less energy to transport than bottles but if you can't do anything but throw the plastic away at the end is that worth the gains in fuel? Several online sources say that the plastic is recyclable but I'm not certain. Does anyone know whether it can be, or does anyone use the bags? I'd love to find out more. Another example of where being green isn't an easy clear path!