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 (,
CC-BY-SA-3.0 (
or CC-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 (], 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 
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
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 (], 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!