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By louise Gray, author of The Ethical Carnivore
For the last two years, I have been only eating animals I killed myself. It seems an extreme position. But really it was all about compassion. The idea was to find out how meat is sourced and educate people about where their food comes from.
Mostly, I was vegetarian except for a small number of mammals including rabbit, deer and a pig. Overall I ate far less meat than your average British omnivore.
I also ate a lot of fish.
The fish I ate most in my year was mackerel. The ‘tigers of the sea’ are plentiful around the coast of Britain in the summer months and even a complete amateur can catch one. I hauled up 24 in one afternoon off Arbroath in North East Scotland.
Below is the recipe, for more Ethical Carnivore adventures please look out the book.
4 x smoked mackerel fillets (equivalent to two whole fish)
1 tsp grated horseradish or 2 tsp horseradish sauce
2 tsp Dijon mustard
2 tbsp crème fraiche
½ lemon juiced
100g unsalted butter
salt and pepper to taste
Take the skin off the mackerel and mix with the horseradish, mustard, lemon and crème fraiche. Blend in a food processor or with a hand blender. Add the butter and blend to a paste.
Serve on oatcakes with a parsley garnish to a literary crowd.
An article by Marianne Taylor, author of Birds: Myth, Lore and Legend
For those of us lucky enough to live and work in sturdy, heated buildings, finding out what the weather is going to do is merely a matter of interest. But for our ancestors, and for plenty of modern cultures as well, accurate weather prediction could mean the difference between life and death. Humanity has a very long tradition of using natural phenomena, including bird behavior, to try to forecast the weather, and this is reflected in folklore from around the world.
Fishermen and merchants risking their lives at sea to deliver goods or bring home a catch have a particularly pressing need to understand the weather. Who better to help them than the seabirds that spend virtually their whole lives out over the waters, coping with whatever the elements throw at them? The European Storm-petrel is one of the smallest of all seabirds but one of the toughest too, able to ride the wildest seas. Its English name reflects a widespread British belief that its arrival predicts – or perhaps even causes – sea storms. Another old British name for the species, ‘Mother Carey’s Chicken’, references mater cara, the Virgin Mary, to whom sailors pray for safety at sea. The storm-petrels’ big brothers, the albatrosses, are also said to bring bad weather if they linger too long close to a boat, but a brief sighting means good luck and fair weather for seafarers.
Singing in the rain
Several Britsh birds are said to call or sing in advance of a rainstorm. One is the Green Woodpecker, also nicknamed ‘yaffle’ because of its laughing voice, and ‘rain bird’ because that laughter supposedly heralds rain (the bird is laughing at the sun). The Red-throated Diver has the local name ‘rain goose’ in Orkney and Shetland where it breeds, because its drawn-out wailing call means imminent rain – while a different, more witches’-cackle version of the call is a sign of that the clouds will clear. In Africa, the mighty Southern Ground Hornbill’s booming call is another predictor of precipitation, as are the yells of black cockatoos in Australia.
Its laughing call is said to herald rain, but the Green Woodpecker enjoys sunshine as much as anyone else.
Fact or fable?
Gulls turning up inland is often cited as a warning of bad weather at sea, but in truth many species of gulls have long nested and foraged inland.
Common Gulls are (probably) so called because they often feed on ‘common-land’, and can be seen inland regardless of the weather.
The idea that Rooks nest higher in treetops in years that are to have long sunny summers is also misguided, as Rooks habitually use the same nests year after year. In fact, the idea that birds can predict long-term weather patterns is rather suspect all round. When many Waxwings turn up in Britain in autumn, this is often considered to be a sign that the winter to follow will be severe, but in fact is related to past rather than future events. If it was a bad summer for berry-bearing trees and shrubs in Russia and Scandinavia, more Waxwings will be forced to move south and west to find food.
It is a shortage of food rather than a premonition of freezing weather that sends Waxwings from north-east Europe to Britain.
However, birds really do have some ability to predict weather in the short-term. A structure in the avian inner ear (the Vitali or paratympanic organ) is highly sensitive to changes in air pressure, which as all budding meteorologists know is the key to changes in the weather. This can give birds a day or more’s warning of advancing bad weather, triggering them to indulge in feeding frenzies (as noted in Blue Jays and other species in the Blue Ridge mountains, USA), or even brief migrations to safer areas (observed in Golden-winged Warblers in Florida). Snow Geese in North America seem to be able to dodge extratropical storms on their southbound migration, by varying their route and timing of departure.
It is very tempting to ascribe mystical powers to wild creatures. And birds certainly have more natural, innate ability to predict weather changes than we humans do. But of much more importance is their ability, honed by millennia of natural selection, to contend with bad weather, by sheltering or fleeing or simply enduring it. Or, in some cases, embracing it. It’s worth going outside on a wild-weather day to watch Ravens soaring and tumbling like windblown ashes on a blustery day, or pigeons rain-bathing with all the apparent delight of actors in power-shower commercials. Such sights are part of the joy of wildlife-watching and a joy that inspired our ancestors just as much as it does us today.
For confident fliers like this Raven and Carrion Crow, windy days mean aerial playtime.
Read more about how historical accounts, scientific literature and superstitions have shaped our understanding of bird behaviour in Birds: Myth, Lore and Legend by Marianne Taylor.
This month the RSPB are encouraging us all to swap our comfortable homes for nature’s home for a night and discover a secret world of wildlife by taking part in their Big Wild Sleepout between 29th and 31st July. By venturing outside to kip under the stars, you’ll get to know more about wildlife at night, spotting nocturnal animals going about their lives under cover of darkness.
To help you make the most of the evening, we’ve put together some fantastic ideas from Hattie Garlick’s Born to be Wild about how to have fun under the stars
MAKE SHADOW PUPPETS
- Draw the basic outlines of some nocturnal creatures onto a piece of card. Before it gets dark, or else by torchlight, cut them out.
- Find some sticks and Sellotape them to the backs of the animals.
- Hold them up against a tree trunk, wall, fence or the ground, and shine a torch on them to project shadows onto the surface.
- Make the puppets hop around, play together, fight, adventure, nibble on leaves… whatever theatrics your imagination dictates.
TELL A STORY BY TORCHLIGHT
Clearly this is more authentically and cosily undertaken by firelight. You can’t, after all, toast marshmallows on a battery-operated torch. If you are good at building fires and have, to hand, the space in which to do so and the materials with which to do so, I applaud you. If you’re like me, use a torch and eat chocolate instead. Reading aloud in the outdoors is pretty magical whatever the light source.
- Find a sheltered space in which to make yourself comfortable. This could be a bench, a fallen tree, a log, some garden chairs or a cushion on a balcony.
- Sit down with friends or family, warm clothes, sustenance, a torch and either a book or a story in someone’s head.
- Nominate someone to tell the story. They get the torch, of course, with which to read and gesture.
Note You can also pass a book around the circle, so that everybody reads a page, or make up a story together, so that each person adds a sentence in turn.
LOOK FOR NOCTURNAL ANIMALS
There is a whole other world, right under our noses, whose inhabitants walk the same streets, sniff around the bins we use every day, and stretch out and play in the same gardens and parks in which we stretch and play ourselves. All you have to do to access this universe is come out after dark. Keep quiet, keep still and keep warm, and you’ll see this other world come alive around you.
Don’t use a torch or make lots of noise. You’ll scare them off.
Do wrap up really warmly and listen carefully – you might well hear animals that you can’t see.
Note You don’t even, necessarily, need to go outside. If you turn off the lights in your sitting room and sit still you might get lucky.
What to look for
- Deer (yep, even in some urban and
- suburban areas)
Ideally, you need a clear, dark sky, somewhere far away from street lights, strip-lit shop fronts and office buildings that beam brutally into the nightscape. But for the small astronauts who dream of rocket trips from the fifteenth floor of a concrete jungle or the safety of their suburban semi, there is still plenty of hope. In the winter, when it gets dark earlier than in the summer, the possibilities to explore the night sky are endless. All you need is a clear night, this book, an outside space (a garden, park or even a balcony will do), warm clothes, hot drinks, imagination and sparkling eyes. Done? Okay, now can you spot any of the following?
- The Plough (or Big Dipper)
- the Pole Star n Venus
Note The night sky looks different depending on where you are in the world, but you can always find guides online. Wherever you stargaze, don’t forget to look for shooting stars and other planets, too, and notice what phase the moon is in.
Discover more nocturnal activities in the rest of the book – Born to be Wild by Hattie Garlick
Our gorgeous RSPB Spotlight series of paperbacks introduces readers to Britain’s best-loved animals. This month we’re very excited to add two new titles to our growing list of Spotlight subjects: RSPB Spotlight: Badgers , and RSPB Spotlight: Eagles.
To celebrate, we’ve collected together a few favourite facts gleaned from our RSPB Spotlight books released so far, covering badgers, eagles, robins, foxes, otters and puffins!
We’re also offering you the chance to win the whole series. Simply respond on Twitter @chiffchat telling us which RSPB Spotlight animal is your favourite, and why.
Did You Know…?
Despite their reputation as being ‘the strong and silent type’, Badgers do communicate… through their droppings! Badgers use latrines − which comprise collections of shallow hollows called dung pits − as message boards. Many latrines lie beneath trees, perhaps to protect the contents (and their ‘press release’) from being washed away by rain. Most latrines are located either close to the main sett, along the territory boundary or where Badger paths cross. This indicates that one purpose of poo clues is to emphasise ownership of the territory. Strikingly, however, neighbouring Badgers share latrines along territory borders. This suggests that Badgers use latrines to exchange information about who is in their gang, rather than to simply erect a ‘no entry’ sign.
A flying Golden Eagle can reach speeds of up to 190km/h (118 mph), and when accelerating into a dive can even pick up speeds of 240-320 km/h (150-200mph)! The sudden braking of the bird by spreading its wings at the point of impact can create a tearing sound audible for some distance. ‘Like a thunderbolt it falls’ said Tennyson, and he was not far wrong.
Robins might hold the key to understanding a mysterious ‘sixth sense’ observed in many birds – Magnetoreception, the ability to sense magnetic fields. This skill is down to the presence of crystals of the iron oxide magnetite within receptor cells in the skin of their bills. These cells send messages to a particular part of the brain in response to magnetic fields, but this ‘compass’ system also requires a certain level of light to work properly. The combination of seasonal changes to light levels and the Robin’s ability to detect the Earth’s magnetic field, allows it to orient itself correctly for migration.
Foxes have an incredibly varied diet and differing hunting techniques adapted to this. When hunting worms, for example, a fox will grip the slithery morsel in its incisors, but instead of tugging violently, which would break the worm, it pauses until the worm relaxes, then pulls gently and steadily so as to extract the whole animal, unbroken, from the ground. Parents teach their cubs this technique by example.
Have you ever wondered what Otters keep in their pockets? The Sea Otter is one of few mammals that have learned to use tools to access food. It will search for and pick up a rock from the ocean floor, along with hard-shelled sea species such as clams and mussels, and pop these into its pockets- deep rolls of skin that form pouches under each foreleg. On surfacing, the Sea Otter places the rock on its stomach and, holding the hard-shelled morsel between its forepaws, will smash it against the rock until it can get to the soft meat inside. Particularly good rocks are then often put back in its pockets, for use another time!
While the general rule in birds is that smaller birds have a shorter life expectancy, and larger birds longer ones, the Puffin seems to be an exception to this. The oldest puffin ever found in Europe was 41 years old, on the Norwegian Island of RØst. Long-term studies of Puffins in the UK have revealed survivors not far behind the Norwegian bird, with a 39 year-old bird- ringed in 1974- spotted again in 2008. Were it not for the evidence of ringing, it would be impossible to pick out the senior citizens in a Puffin colony as- unlike us humans- Puffins show no outward signs of old age.
By Michael Scott, author of Mountain Flowers
One of the earliest decisions I took in writing my Mountain Flowers book (to be published by Bloomsbury in August) was that I would have to omit Ireland from its scope. This was mostly because I was worried about keeping the length to the required 416 pages with so much ground to cover, but I was also conscious that I had never properly botanised on the island. I was particularly ashamed never to have visited The Burren, one of the most special botanical sites in the whole of the British Isles. What better way, therefore, to celebrate finally sending the book to the printers than to head across to The Burren in early May this year?
Spring Gentian flowers as abundantly on The Burren as anywhere I’ve seen it in the Alps.
© Michael Scott/Bloomsbury
I wasn’t disappointed. The Burren, on the west coast of Ireland in County Clare, is a wonderful site for botanising with an intriguing mix of arctic-alpine species that we would normally expect to find in mountains and southern species more typical of Mediterranean climates. On the limestone pavement at Poulsallagh, I found the vivid blue flowers of Spring Gentian (Gentiana verna) more abundantly than I have seen it anywhere else, even in its heartland in the Alps, alongside displays of Mountain Avens (Dryas octopetala) to rival any I have seen in the Arctic. The pale yellow flowers of Hoary Rockrose (Helianthemum oelandicum), a species I know otherwise only in Upper Teesdale, were everywhere – and much else besides. I’m still glad I excluded The Burren from the book. It would have merited a long chapter to itself, even without the other Irish sites, and what would I have had to omit from my coverage of England, Wales and Scotland to find this space? However, it reminded me again of the resilience and adaptability of the flowering plants we associate with the mountains; the arctic-alpine species in The Burren were telling me this was a mountain, yet I had climbed no higher than 150 metres above sea-level.
Irish Saxifrage in magnificent flower on Inis Oírr (or Inisheer) island.
© Michael Scott/Bloomsbury
There was one plant I especially wanted to see. Irish Saxifrage (Saxifraga rosacea) features briefly in the book, but is a species I had never seen. I searched hard for it at Poulsallagh but failed. There was one more opportunity: I knew it was recorded at the eastern end of Inis Oírr, so we took the ferry across to the island with several hours to explore. We stopped at one scenic spot and noticed white flowers on a grassy bank. I scrambled up to them and immediately recognised how similar the plant looked to the more widespread montane species Mossy Saxifrage (S. hypnoides). However, its flowers had broader petals and its leaves were much more densely tufted, with subtle differences in their shape. It was Irish Saxifrage, and I had almost forgotten the exhilarating thrill of seeing a ‘new’ species for the first time. We continued onto a large expanse of limestone pavement, just beyond, and it seemed to be covered with large tussocks of the saxifrage in wonderfully abundant, showy flower. In fact, it reminded me of flowery plants sold in garden centres as Mossy Saxifrage which I have always dismissed as much too showy to be that species!
Irish Saxifrage in its limestone pavement habitat amidst the distinctive landscape of Inis Oírr.
© Michael Scott/Bloomsbury
The Burren is well known as a site for Irish Saxifrage, which is also found in central Germany, the Jura mountains and elsewhere in central Europe. However, as with so many mountain plants I discuss in the book, there is a mystery about it too. Irish Saxifrage was recorded as growing in Cwm Idwal in Snowdonia in 1796, although it has not been seen there since 1978. There are herbarium specimens of it from elsewhere in Snowdonia too, and one labelled from Glen Dole, presumably Glen Doll in Angus, another classic site that I write about in the book. I always assumed that Irish and Mossy saxifrages were so similar that these records might have arisen from confusion, but the overall ‘jizz’ of the plants I saw on Inis Oírr was very different from the Mossy Saxifrage I know in the British mountains. So does Irish Saxifrage still lurk, unrecognised and overlooked, somewhere in Snowdonia, Angus or elsewhere in the mountains of Britain? That is precisely why I wanted to write my Mountain Flowers book: to encourage more botanists to take to the hills, and more hillwalkers to look at the wild flowers beside their boots, in the hope that we can answer this and many other botanical mysteries that still persist, even in the well-tramped mountains of Britain.
Michael Scott, 18th May 2016
Inspired by Highlands: Scotland’s Wildheart by Stephen Moss. With photography from Laurie Campbell
Scoured by ice and weathered by storms, the Scottish Highlands cover twenty thousand square miles of rugged coastline, lochs and mountains. In the new BBC series narrated by Ewan McGregor, this landmark show gives a beautiful portrait of life in his homeland, following the wildlife and people of Scotland’s Wild Heart.
Later this month, we’re very excited to be publishing the sumptuous tie-in book for the series. Because we hope you’ll love it as much as we do, we have put together this exclusive preview of some of the stunning photography from the book and the wonderful creatures featured in the show- Scottish Wildcats, Ospreys and Red Squirrels.
Scottish Wild Cats
Our rarest and most elusive animal mammal, the Scottish Wildcat, has been driven to the edge of extinction over the past century, thanks to the spread of feral cats, with which it interbreeds.
If you are lucky enough to come across any ‘wildcat’ in the highlands, it is crucial to check the key features of a truly wild animal. It should be very large- up to 1m long- and show a distinctive bushy tail with a blunt tip and thick black rings around it.
Osprey’s are one of the most impressive of Scotland’s birds. They are also one of the most distinctive, being brown above and creamy- white below, with a distinctive brown stripe through the eye creating a mask-like appearance, a pale crown and a hooked bill.
Ospreys feed on large fish such as salmon and trout, which they catch by snatching them from the surface of lakes using specially adapted claws. Click here to watch the mesmerising video clip of an Osprey fishing in super-slow motion.
Few animals are so closely associated with the Highland forests as the Red Squirrel, which nests, sleeps and feeds amongst the Scots Pines.
Unfortunately, the more common Grey Squirrels both outcompete their red cousins and carry a disease that, although harmless to Greys, rapidly kills the Reds. Because of this, Red Squirrels in Britain are mostly confined to Northumberland, the Lake District and the Highlands of Scotland, where roughly three-quarters of the entire UK population now lives.
By Charlie Elder, author of Few and Far Between
There is something about rare wildlife that captivates us. From seahorses to snow leopards, scarcity bestows a certain quality, an undeniable allure. Encounters with seldom-seen species can be among our most treasured memories. And not only do rare animals embody a celebration of the diversity of nature around us, they also highlight the uniqueness of species and the fragility of life on earth. To see them can be both a thrilling and a moving experience.
When I set out to find a selection of Britain’s rarest and most endangered animals, and tell the stories of conservation work to save them, I was relying for the most part on expert help to track down my targets. But there are plenty of scarce and charismatic species that everyone can enjoy, scattered like precious gems across our islands. All it takes is to be in the right place at the right time, narrowing the odds of success in your favour. And if you don’t get lucky, you’re bound to see something else of interest. Nature always rewards those who make an effort to get out and get searching…
So here is a selection of five uncommon delights, including a number of favourite encounters from my travels for Few And Far Between. Some are more elusive than others, but then seeking out rarities wouldn’t be any fun if it was too easy!
Capercaillie – one of Scotland’s most famous birds, this giant grouse is found in the ancient pine forests of the Highlands. In the spring, the glossy black males strut their stuff on the woodland floor to impress females, emitting bizarre clicking and popping sounds. To see one of these scarce and localised birds, head for the RSPB’s Abernethy Reserve where early morning ‘Caper-watch’ sessions run during April and May at the Loch Garten Osprey Centre. And if you don’t spot one, you can treat yourself to a local osprey sighting instead.
Smooth snake – Britain’s rarest reptile, this secretive heathland species is restricted to a few sites in southern England. It’s a mini-constrictor, grabbing lizards or small mammals and coiling around its prey before swallowing it whole. Greyish-brown and non-venomous, it has a distinctive black heart-shaped mark on the head and subtle but attractive patterning. The RSPB’s Arne Reserve in Dorset runs reptile events during late spring and summer with the chance to see these protected rarities.
Fen raft spider – as British spiders go, they don’t come much larger than this spectacular wetland species, which is capable of catching sticklebacks. It is handsome too, with two cream stripes running down its dark body. Suffolk Wildlife Trust’s Redgrave and Lopham Fen reserve has a special ‘spider trail’, which passes pools of still water where the rare semi-aquatic spiders can be spotted lurking amid the reeds at the edges waiting for passing prey.
Pine marten – these bright-eyed and bushy-tailed agile arboreal hunters, shaped like supersized stoats and capable of chasing down squirrels, are our rarest carnivores after the Scottish wild cat. Almost entirely found north of the border, they are striking and handsome woodland dwellers. Speyside Wildlife runs guided evening visits to a hide on the Rothiemurchus Estate in the Cairngorms, where pine martens regularly visit feeding stations.
Natterjack toad – our nosiest amphibian, with a croak that can be heard up to a mile away, this rarity is confined to a few dozen heathland and coastal sites. Mostly active after dark, they run rather than hop, are weak swimmers and have a thin yellow stripe running down the back. Even if you don’t spot one, the males in chorus are well worth hearing as they attempt to lure females to shallow breeding pools with load croaks, amplified by an inflatable vocal sac. Head to Sandscale Haws National Nature Reserve where National Trust rangers conduct evening toad walks in spring and early summer.
When I started to write about birds’ eggs I wondered whether anyone had established which of the different shapes was most common. Obviously when we talk about something being egg shaped we are usually thinking of a hen’s egg, which is ‘oval’, but with an obvious blunt and pointed end and whose greatest width lies closer to the blunt end. To my surprise nobody seems to have quantified egg shape across all families of birds. Part of the difficulty, of course, is coming up with a simple index of shape. Researchers have devised several complicated ways of describing egg designs but there is no single number that captures the full range of shapes. For this reason most books dealing with egg shape simply show – as I do here – a set of outlines or silhouettes illustrating the different types that exist.
One thing we do know is that as well as being characteristic for a particular species, shape is also fairly characteristic for particular families of birds, too. Owls, for example, typically lay spherical eggs;
Different shapes of birds’ eggs. From left to right: Ross’s turaco (spherical), ruff (pyriform), hummingbird (oblong oval or elliptical), crowned sandgrouse (oblong oval or elliptical), African thrush (oval), Slavonian grebe (bi-conical or long subelliptical), alpine swift (ellipitical ovate or long oval). Redrawn from Thomson, 1964.
waders (shorebirds) lay pyriform eggs; sandgrouse produce oval or elliptical eggs; and grebes produce biconical eggs. As a biologist, two questions come to mind. How are eggs of different shapes made, and why are they the shape they are? The first question is about the mechanics of making an egg; the second concerns the adaptive significance of different egg shapes.
Thinking about how a female bird produces eggs of a particular shape, my natural inclination was to imagine that the shape was determined by the shell: shape and shell created together. The truth is more bizarre. The contours of a bird’s egg are governed by its membranes, the parchment-like layer inside the shell – as my eggin- vinegar experiment suggested – rather than by the shell itself. Once you know that the membrane determines the shape it isn’t too difficult to imagine the process.
In an ingenious X-ray study of egg formation conducted in the late 1940s, John Bradfield could see that the shape of the hen’s egg was determined before the shell had even started to form, prior to entering the shell gland. Instead, he could see that the egg’s shape was established in the isthmus, the region of the oviduct immediately anterior to the shell gland, where the shell membrane around the egg is created. He noticed, too, that the part of the isthmus adjacent to the shell gland is ‘more contractile and more like a sphincter’ than the other end adjacent to the magnum, suggesting that: ‘Since the egg greatly distends the narrow isthmus [region of the oviduct], it is to be expected that the caudal [tail] end of the egg, situated in the more contractile part of the isthmus, will become more pointed than the cranial [head] end.’ He adds, however, that this suggestion is far from proved ‘and the problem remains without a clear-cut solution.
At the end of the egg-shape spectrum opposite to the guillemot are certain owls, tinamous and bustards that lay almost spherical eggs. How is that done? Does the isthmus in these birds lack the sphincter that Bradfield saw in the hen? Or does the egg turn continuously as the membrane is laid down so that the sphincter applies a uniform pressure all over the egg? We don’t know.
In humans the maximum size of a baby at birth is determined by the size of the ‘birth canal – that is, the internal diameter of the pelvic girdle. Our present ability to perform caesarian operations removes this constraint, but prior to the twentieth century and the routine use of caesarian section, babies who were too big – or whose heads were too big – failed to be delivered successfully, got stuck and died, usually along with the mother. Strong selection indeed. Because the bones that form the human cranium are still not fused at birth there is some flexibility (literally), permitting the skull to adopt a different shape during birth and allowing some relatively big-headed babies to be born.
Read more in Tim Birkehad’s The Most Perfect Thing: Inside (and Outside) a Bird’s Egg