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A few days ago I went for a walk in the city centre of Cambridge and as luck would have it it was a day when the grounds of Trinity College were open to the public. I crossed the river Cam over the Garret Hostel Bridge by Trinity Hall and looped back through Trinity College to recross the river over Trinity College Bridge.

From Trinity College Bridge looking back to Garret Hostel Bridge

It was a beautiful warm sunny morning and it’s a very green part of the city, and the grounds of the ‘backs’ of the colleges are surrounded by drainage channels, so on a day like that I’d expect there to be lots mini beasts buzzing around over the water and feeding on all the open flowers.

Drainage channel between Trinity Hall and Trinity College

With so much water lined with uncultivated banks adjacent to other areas which had been cultivated to maximise the number of flowers it should have been humming with bugs and and the birds that feed on them.

Flower beds and gardens of Trinity College

It’s a lovely place to spend time on a sunny morning but the almost total lack of insects was worrying. Along the drainage channel above I saw no insects at all and in the flower beds and gardens of Trinity I counted three butterflies – two small whites (I think), one holly blue – and two bumble bees. There was also very little birdlife apart from half a dozen jackdaws that were flapping around the lawns.

There have been a lot of news articles in recent times about how climate change is causing a catastrophic decline in insect numbers, and there seems to be debate about what’s really going on; but the almost total absence of them on a sunny morning in somewhere as green as the ‘Backs’ in Cambridge made me think that there is a problem here.

St Johns College from the gardens of Trinity College
Punters on the Cam along the Backs

It’s a beautiful place but maybe not as green and biodiverse as I thought it might be. Or should be.

Avian relaxation

Following on from my last post when I mentioned the changes in behaviour of the local wildlife, since then there have been more birds relaxing in the garden. There have always been wood pigeons (Columba palumbus) round and about, and for several years they’ve nested in my plum tree in the front garden, but this year, in the absence of most of the normal human intrusion, they’ve been omnipresent. There are often at least two sitting atop the garden wall just relaxing,

49871188083_5601f155bd_cPreening wood pigeon on the garden wall

Growing on the garden wall is a wisteria, and you can see the purple flowers here. But what you can’t do is smell the flowers.


On a hot sunny day, for a couple of weeks in early May, the bracts of flowers, which are up to a metre long, fill the garden with the most intense and heavenly aroma. Interestingly though, the bees don’t seem to be that bothered by it, but I love it!

What I think are a pair of males have adopted a branch in the apple tree which they fight over – I assume they’re males, if they’re females I imagine they’d probably just take it easy and have a chat, but I guess it’s that time of year.

49872029342_e55e4a4386_cWoody wood pigeon perched on the ‘fighting branch’ – I can see why they like that particular spot

But a few days ago this one dropped down out the apple tree onto the grass and after lazily mooching about for a few minutes just hunkered down and did nothing for 20-30 minutes or so:

49930145537_6c4790cfeb_bCooling off on the ground, and obviously not afraid of the local cats

He wasn’t sufficiently relaxed to doze off like the dove in my last post and he stayed alert, but even so, I’ve never seen one do this before.


Lockdown Upside

I’ve been working from home during these unprecentedly loopy times we’re all living through. So while I’m sitting reading next to the window I’ve noticed the local wildlife has been behaving quite differently. The creatures frequenting my garden seem much more realxed than they normally do. I have a resident wren which I’ve seen hunkering down to sunbath just outside the window, and that’s unusual. Other birds that would normally flit in and out really quickly have also been taking their time, such as this collared dove which took time to enjoy the sunshine and generally take it easy yesterday.

First off it perched on the back of a garden chair and had a really good stretch, wings extended and tail fanned:


And after spending quite a few minutes just hanging around and enjoying the heat it drifted off for a little siesta…


And that would never have happened before the Covid-19 lockdown. So even though it’s a pain for humans, it’s wonderful that the rest of the creatures on the planet can enjoy a few months of quality relaxation whilst we’re not terrorising them.





Happy Easter

It’s Easter Saturday and the thermometer is reading 27 degrees C, it’s a really beatiful day. Yesterday was the same and blossom is well underway on my apple tree, and maybe at least partially as a result of the Covid-19 lockdown my garden is being frequented by a stream of butterflies. Which makes me very happy! Some of them such as the comma (Polygonia c-album) and the holly blue (Celastrina argiolus) are regular visitors at this time of year:


5681704530_8f2f56a391_wHolly Blue

But there have been a couple of first sightings, both yesterday, which was great to see; the brimstone (Gonepteryx rhamni) and the orange tip (Anthocharis cardamines):


5681166601_54ddff5bb7Orange tip

I love orange tips but they’re really tough to track and photograph because they seldom settle. But when they eventually do settle and close their wings the underside has the most exquisite green lacework which also functions as perfect camouflage, they’re virtually invisible when they sit tight and don’t move.

One other treat I’ve had whilst working from home during the Covid-19 lockdown is my resident wren who appears just outside the window at least once a day and just occasionally sings his heart out. It’s amazing how so much lovely song emanates from such a tiny bird, and at such high volume! I’ll try to get some wren pictures in the next few days and post them here.

In the mean time have a lovely Easter weekend and stay home and stay safe!

The fragile nature of Green Belt

Over the last year and a half or so I’ve been working with a group of people from my village to try to limit the development of our Green Belt land. ‘Green Belt‘ is undeveloped green space encircling built up areas which has legal protection from development in order to limit urban sprawl and provide places where people from towns and cities can go for relaxation.

One of our areas slated for development is Buxhall Farm, which is around 300m from where I live. It’s in the Green Belt and I’ve posted about it’s wildlife on numerous occasions. On the face of it it’s a flat and boring piece of arable farmland with little value for wildlife. Or so you might think. Closer inspection shows that it’s home to many species of birds as well as wildflowers, butterflies moths, mammals etc. All you have to do is look…

Linnet (Linaria cannabina, Dansk: tornirisk)

All the picures here were taken on Buxhall Farm over the Easter weekend from 19th to the 22nd April and at the end of this post is a full list of my sightings there from that weekend.

The linnet is a ‘red listed’ bird in the UK which means it’s of maximum conservation concern. This listing is usually due to falling numbers which is often the result of habitat destruction. Linnet are present at Buxhall all year round and breed there.

Dunnock  (Prunella modularis, Dansk: jernspurv)

The dunnock isn’t red listed… yet. It’s a common sight round here and it has a rather lovely song, and some interesting mating habits.

Skylark (Alauda arvensis, Dansk: sanglærke)

The skylark is red listed due to declining numbers, largely due to intensive farming methods. I spoke to the farmer earlier in the week and he told me that he leaves wide field margins to encourage the wildlife and farms his land accordingly. So hats off to him, it shows that it’s possible to make a living from the land without destroying all the wildlife.

Female reed bunting (Emberiza schoeniclus, Dansk: rørspurv)

Yellowhammer (Emberiza citrinella, Dansk: gulspurv)

Over the last three winters there have been flocks of around 50 yellowhammers (also red listed) at Buxhall Farm and this is an important number of these lovely birds. They are one of those iconic farmland/hedgerow species whose numbers have plummeted in recent decades, also due to intensive farming methods, but we still have a healthy population in my neck of the woods.

Peacock butterfly (Inachis io)

All in all I saw at least 7 species of butterfly. There were many whites, but only one species that I could identify as it flew close and slow, but there were probably large whites and green veined whites too, both of which I see there every year. Butterflies are a very good indicator of the health of a habitat so to see so many species so early in the season was wonderful.

Long tailed tit (Aegithalos caudatus, Dansk: halemajse)

Long tailed tits are normally fliting from tree to tree in small flocks but this time there were only two and they seemed local to a particular tree, suggesting they’re a breeding pair using it as a nest site.

Small tortoiseshell butterfly (Aglais urticae)

Goldfinch (Carduelis carduelis, Dansk: stillits)

Land designated ‘Green Belt’ has historically not been developed to retain those green areas for local people to get away from the city. But under current planning legislation an authority can simply take land out of Green Belt and develop it as it pleases. Combined with the massive curtailment of funding from central government to local authorities there’s now intense financial pressure for those authorities to try to develop an income stream from the land they own. It’s perfectly understandable that cash strapped councils need to raise funds but I don’t think this is a good way to do it, but it’s what’s happening around my village and what we are trying to minimise.

The full list of sightings on Buxhall Farm between 19th-22nd April 2019:

Species                 Number

Great tit                    1
Blackbird                 5
Greenfinch               1
Skylark                     17
Wren                         4
Dunnock                   4
Yellowhammer        4
Long tailed tit          2
Carrion crow            3
Goldfinch                  8
Rook                         21
Starling                     2
Reed bunting           8
Corn bunting           2
Whitethroat             2
Swallow                    2
Magpie                      2
Blackcap                   1
Linnet                       1
Blue tit                     2
House sparrow       3
Buzzard                    1
Robin                        1
Wood pigeon           3
Collared dove          1
Songthrush              1
Green woodpecker 1
Kestrel                      1
Chaffinch                 1
Peacock                    2
Small white              1
Holly blue                 1
Orange tip                1
Brimstone                 1
Speckled wood         1
Small tortoiseshell  1

It’s a really great place for wildlife and I hope we can help to ensure it remains as very well managed farmland and doesn’t get destroyed by developers building houses.

Mad Marketing and Migratory Birds – the next instalment

Following on from my little rant about crap marketing by a well known purveyor of sports equipment at the end of December last year, I thought I’d check and see if the same gloves were still on sale and if so, whether the sales pitch had changed.

Imagine my disappointment to find that the offending text was still in situ in an unabridged form:

Designed for standing at post on big game drives in cold weather. Also suitable for hunting migratory birds.

Either they didn’t actually pass on my comments to the relevant people within their organisation, in which case they fibbed to me. Or they did, and it got lost in the ether – in which case they’re incompetent, or they did and then decided not to change it, and in that case they’re scumbags.

Suffice to say I shall be voting with my feet and my credit card and source my sports kit elsewhere. Bastards.

But that’s enough of that and I hope a picture of a spring butterfly will lighten the mood a tad…

This is a holly blue (Celastrina argiolus) which is usually the first butterfly I see in springtime when it emerges in March/April; after which it disappears for a while. But it has a second emergence in June – August (the technical term  is ‘bivoltine‘), and this image was taken in the summer in my garden. And it makes me smile when idiot marketing people conspire to ruin my day!

A once in a lifetime opportunity

This post is a diversion from my regular posts about the biological side of nature and this time I’m delving into the more fundamental aspects of physical nature.

Peter Higgs is a colossus of modern theoretical physics who was awarded the Nobel proze for physics in 2013 for his prediction of the presence of the ‘Higgs boson‘ – the so called ‘God particle‘ which is accredited with conferring mass on other sub-atomic particles. In my professional life I’m a  mass spectrometrist so experiments to determine the nature of mass itself are of immense interest. In order to prove Higgs’ theory, one of the biggest and most expensive scientific experiments ever devised was built at the ‘Conseil européen pour la Recherche nucléaire‘ or CERN, in Geneva, Switzerland. It’s called the ‘Large Hadron Collider‘ or LHC. The idea of a collider is that sub atomic particles (hadrons) can be crashed together at incomprehensibly huge energies to smash them into their constituent parts which can then be analysed. At the moment the theory of these elementary particles, which are the building blocks of all the matter in the known Universe, is described by the ‘Standard Model, but there are holes in the Model such as ‘what is dark matter?’ or ‘why is there more matter than antimatter in the Universe?’. So it’s hoped that high energy colliders such as the LHC will enable us to probe deeper into the fundamental building blocks of everything and fill the holes in the Standard Model.

In August last year I attended a conference in Geneva and one of the social events was a trip to the LHC at CERN, and that’s one of those opportunities that can’t be ignored. So, even though this isn’t ‘nature‘ as such, I hope I can justify sharing it here!

A status pannel for the LHC indicating what it’s actually doing

Everything about the LHC is mind boggling. It’s a circular tunnel 27km in circumference under Geneva and the Jura mountains on the Swiss/French border. It’s designed to accelerate small beams of protons in opposite directions to as close to the speed of light as possible, before colliding them inside one of four detectors around the ring. The protons are generated by stripping the electron away from hydrogen atoms leaving the free hydrogen nucleus (consisting of a single proton) to be fed into the accelerator. The collided protons eliminate each other and in the process give off collosal amounts of energy in the form of X-rays and gamma rays and sub atomic particles.

Access to the ring is only possible when the beam is turned off because of the intense radiation generated by the colliding particles. Until now the ring has only been operating at 50% power (but even at half power definitive evidence for the existence of the Higgs boson was found) and it was shutdown for an upgrade to enable it to operate at full power. After the upgrade, which was scheduled for completion at the end of 2014, there will be no access for several years whilst further experiments are underway, so I consider myself extremely fortunate to have got in to have a look. Even at half power the protons approached close to the speed of light but higher speed will give higher energy collisions and more information about the fundamental structure of matter.

The end of one of the sections of the ring on the test rig prior to installation in the LHC

To accelerate the protons to near light speed takes a lot of circuits around the ring and I think we were told that that takes around 40 minutes. The ring itself is made up of sections approximately 30m long containing superconducting electromagnets which carry the beam line and a tube for liquid helium which cools the ring down to approximately 1-2oC above absolute zero (-273oC). At this unbelievably cold temperature (colder than outer space according to CERN) the magnets become superconducting and can accelerate and guide the contra-rotating proton beams up to collision speed. To collide the two beams, which are only a few μm in diameter, has been likened to firing two needles at each other from 10km apart with sufficient accuracy that they meet in the middle – quite a technological challenge!

The other consequence of cooling the ring down to such a low temperature is thermal contraction, and at the operating temperature of -271.3oC the 27km ring decreases in circumference by approximately 0.003% – which may not sound like much but is in reality around 80m!

There are four main detectors on the LHC called CMS, Atlas, ALICE and LHCb and the one that I was privileged enough to visit was the CMS (Compact Muon Solenoid – I can’t help but wonder if this is the compact version what a full size one would look like):

The CMS detector of the LHC. The spike in the middle carries the proton beam line

Here, the two ends of the CMS detector – which has been likened by some to the Rose Window in the Notre Dame cathedral – had been moved apart during the upgrade so all this wouldn’t normally be visible. This vast machine is approximately 21m long, 15m in diameter and weighs 12,500 tonnes. Truly gigantic – the tinyest natural phenomena are being probed by the most enormous machines!

Some more brain-frying facts and figures aabout the LHC!

It can be seen from the diagram that each proton beam contains:

110,000,000,000 protons. At 99.9998% of the speed of light the energy of one proton is:

450,000,000,000eV. And at 99.9999991% the speed of light the energy is:


So an increase in velocity of 0.0001991% gives a vast increase in energy of nearly 16 fold. But 7TeV is only half power and the plan is ultimately to run the LHC at 15TeV… and the plan after that is to build another collider 100km in circumference!

It can be argued that spending the colossal amounts of money required to conduct this type of science could be better spent on for example developing solutions to climate change. But being a scientist I’m a firm believer in conducting fundamental blue sky research and CERN was concieved by one of the greatest theoretical physicists of them all, Louis de Broglie, after WW2 as a means of fostering international cooperation in fundamental physics. So as well as immense scientific and technological developments which includes the world wide web (invented by Tim Berners Lee whilst he was a scientist at CERN) I think CERN has played a key role in enabling many countries to engage with each other in an ostensibly apolitical fashion, and that could ultimately help to foster the spirit of international cooperation required to solve the other big problems.

If this interests you and you want to read more have a look at the CERN website. As you might expect it’s brim full of fascinating stuff!

Seabirds and serendipity

Every now and then an event occurs which reaffirms ones faith in human nature. Just such an event befell me last week whilst away on a trip to the coast near Lancaster and Morecambe.

On Friday morning I was wrapped up against the driving rain and howling wind taking photographs of seabirds on Morecambe beach which is situated on the Irish Sea coast just south of the Lake District. Morecambe Bay is vast, when the tide goes out it leaves square miles of mudflats which provide vital winter sustenance  for thousands of seabirds. It is also a source of great danger to humans because there is a lot of quicksand there, and when the tide comes in it does so extremely quickly and can cut the unwary beachcomber off with no escape route. Consequently I didn’t wander onto the mud, I waterproofed myself and sat on the end of the Promenade where the birdlife was plentiful and, with a little patience, came reasonably close.

A majestic shelduck making ttracks in the mud whilst looking for breakfast

The shelduck (Tadorna tadorna, Dansk: gravand) is a large duck with a wingspan of over a metre and is both native to the UK and a winter migrant. It’s mainly found on the coast and in estuaries but can also be seen on lakes (although I don’t think I’ve ever seen one inland). They feed on molluscs and crustaceans of which the Morecambe Bay mudflats are bursting at the seams. So a good place for a hungry shelduck to be.

I like photographing waders because I generally only get to do it at the coast, and one of my favourites, because I think it’s an elegant little bird, is the redshank:

Redshank – Tringa totanus, Dansk: rødben, demonstrating how it got its name

The redshank also sifts molluscs and crustaceans from the estuarine silt and is a skittish little chap known as the ‘sentinel of the marsh’ due to it’s habit of being the first species to take to the air when flushed.

Several flocks of oystercatchers were also scouring the manmade rocky outcrops strategically placed to guard against storm tides, and were also patrolling the mudflats. They were anything but skittish, unlike the redshank, and ventured close to where I sat and seemed highly adept at finding shellfish and extracting the delicacies within.

Oystercatcher (Haematopus ostralegus, Dansk: strandskade) feasting on the contents of a mollusc shell

So my morning was splendidly wiled away in cold and sodden comtemplation of the ornithological treasures of Morecambe Bay. It was also my daughters birthday that day, so the afternoon was spent taking afternoon tea in the magnificence of the tearoom of the art deco Midland Hotel. The tea (and the champagne) was delicious and the views across the bay to the mountains of the Lake District were splendid

And that brings me neatly back to the event that reaffirmed my faith in human nature. On leaving the Midland I dropped my wallet as I was getting in the car. Serendipity was on my side because it was found by two lovely people from Manchester, Dave and Angela Williams, who had stopped off in Morecambe on their way home from the Lakes. As we were on the move I wasn’t easy to get hold of, but Dave and Angela persevered until we made contact and then waited until I could get back to Morecambe and gave me back my wallet complete with cash, credit cards, driving license etc etc. Which in my book is a very generous thing to do and for which I’m very grateful indeed. So this post is dedicated to them as a token of gratitude, and all other decent and honest people too!

Sustainability Pt2

As you know the EU voted last week to reform the Common Fisheries Policy with a large majority. Here is an email update on the position going forward to the next series of negotiations sent by the Liberal Democrat MEP, Chris Davies. The email subject was ‘Fish Fight Victory!‘, enough said:

Dear Fish Fighter

You will know, I am sure, that on Wednesday the European Parliament gave its backing to major reforms of the EU Common Fisheries Policy. But perhaps you don’t know of the amazing scale of that victory.

After some 180 votes on different amendments or attempts to delete particular reforms, MEPs voted by 502-137 to support the entire package.

We got just about everything we could want. Key amendments calling for all fish caught to be landed (no discards), and for annual quotas to be set so that fish stocks are increased, were approved by large majorities with more than 400 MEPs voting in favour. We insisted that scientific advice must be followed, called for fish stock recovery areas to be created, backed requirements that a long term management plan be established for every fishery, and demanded that governments that fail to meet their obligations should face financial sanctions.

This was the first time that the European Parliament was able to vote on CFP reform as a co-legislator, with equal powers to the Council (EU governments) to amend or reject the European Commission’s proposals. Now the bargaining begins to agree a joint position. Compromises will have to be made, but our decision gives the rapporteur, German MEP Ulrike Rodust, the strong negotiating mandate she will need to overcome opposition in the Council. The Irish Presidency currently in charge of the negotiations has said that it would like to reach agreement by June.

The main opposition to the changes came from Spanish and French EPP (right-of-centre) members, but they weren’t able to keep their group united. At least 70 of their colleagues, led by Scandinavians and German MEPs, refused to back their attempts to weaken the reforms.

I haven’t checked the records but I think you will find that all British MEPs from the main parties backed the reforms. My understanding is that UKIP members abstained on the final vote (Nigel Farage was not present).

How was such a large majority achieved? Credit can go to many individuals and to all the MEPs who voted with us, but there is no doubt that the campaign in several countries led by environment NGOs, including Hugh’s Fish Fight, has raised public awareness and ensured that many people made their views known to their MEPs. Our campaign within the Parliament was run on a cross-party basis. More and more of my colleagues came to accept that we can’t go on as we are, and recognised that fishermen will have a more secure future if we adopt the measures necessary to rebuild fish stocks.

I know the Fisheries Commissioner, Maria Damanaki, would like to say that the first positive steps are already being taken. We now have 27 sustainable fisheries in Europe, compared to just five a few years ago.

The reform campaign is not over yet. The next big series of votes will take place in the Fisheries Committee in April, when we consider the 3,000 amendments tabled to Commission proposals for changing the way the fisheries budget is used over the next seven years. Do we carry on subsidising a handful of shipowners, mainly in Spain and France to build ever more powerful fishing boats, or do we use the money instead to help coastal communities and find ways of assisting fishermen adjust to the demands of sustainable fishing?

I’ll let you know more about this when I know more myself.

Thank you for all your support in this campaign.

With regards

Chris Davies MEP

Liberal Democrat environment spokesman

Secretary, cross-party ‘Fish for the Future’ group

I’m writing this post overlooking Bridlington harbour on the North Sea coast in East Yorkshire and the harbour is full of small fishing boats of the kind I hope will have their future guaranteed by the reforms. And I can’t think of a better location to be in to write this post!

I received emails from several of the Conservative MEP’s who all voted for the reforms, so hats off to them for voting the right way and for taking the trouble to communicate with me about it. Amusing to note though that the UK Independence Party (UKIP) members abstained and that Nigel Farage (the leader of UKIP) didn’t consider saving the fisheries and the jobs and livelihoods of all our fishing communities sufficiently important to even turn up. Despite that it looks as though we’re now in a great position to make real headway to protect our fish and our oceans.

RSPB Big Garden Birdwatch

This weekend, the 26th and 27th January 2013, is the weekend of the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) annual Big Garden Birdwatch. This is a form of citizen science by which the RSPB can harness the collective spotting power of the nation to assist in compiling data on the nations bird populations.

The idea is to spend one hour noting which bird species visit a chosen area and the maximum number of each seen at any one time. This point is important because an individual can make several visits over the course of an hour, so counting total numbers will overestimate the numbers of a particular species.

A long tailed tit paying a visit to my garden this morning

If you want to make a pot of tea and sit by the window for a relaxing hour sipping and counting the details of how to take part are here on the RSPB’s website. Even if you don’t get many interesting birds in your garden, or even many birds at all, this is important and useful data too for compiling population sizes and distributions, so every participant is crucial in creating an accurate picture of the health of the nations birdlife. Which is in turn a useful indicator of the health of the natural environment in the UK as a whole.

I’m going to do my recording tomorrow morning and I’ll post my results here too.