General Diary Stuff
A Kind of Diary About Stuff, er....in General
Continued on from the "General Diary Stuff" at www.wildliferanger.co.uk
In the Pink!
Wandering around Cotswold Water Park at any time of year will often result in spotting something unusual, but Spring is probably the best time to see anything untoward. I saw the above Gull sitting on its scruffy nest amongst a small colony of other nesting Black-Headed Gulls on an island in the middle of one of the larger lakes late this afternoon. He was a long way away, but I managed to get these rather blurry shots using my digi-scoped camera from about 130 metres in very grey light.
I call this Starling "Mallen" (after the fictitious Mallen family of the famous Catherine Cookson novels). He is an occasional visitor to my garden and sports his splendid "Mallen Streak" with no apparent disadvantages. He has more white marks on his primary feathers and one on his rump. Mallen also successfully negotiates a birth defect that has resulted in him growing up with one foot (the left) almost half the size it ought to be, although I'd say that it's about 75% functional!
I think it must be one of the pinkest BHGs that I've ever seen and I've no idea why it's coloured that way. Some kind of psychedelic Leucism maybe or a hybrid perhaps? Red plumage in some species can turn out yellow in a small minority of individuals (eg: the stuffed 1950s Great Spotted Woodpecker on display at a local museum not far from me) and many species, including Blackbirds, Starlings and Sparrows, can appear with white patches in their plumage or be completely white altogether! The only other Gull that I can think of that exhibits a defining pink flush in the white of their breast plumage is the adult Summer Ross's Gull, some individuals of which can look almost red at times. There are also species of birds kept in captivity whose plumage colouration can be affected by diet (Flamingoes are a good example).Oh well, I dare say that someone out there will have seen hundreds of pink BHGs over the years and will be kind enough to let me know what's going on via the link at the bottom of the "Home" page on www.wildliferanger.co.uk !
Two Soldiers Killed in Iraq
28 year-old Cumbrian, Kingsman Danny John Wilson of the 2nd Battalion the Duke of Lancaster's Regiment was unfortunately killed in Basra, Iraq yesterday by small-arms fire while outside of his Warrior armoured vehicle.
Meanwhile, Rifleman Aaron Lincoln was killed in the Al Ashar District of Basra in Southern Iraq today. The precise details of his death during an attack on his unit have not been revealed.
Today is the 25th anniversary of the invasion of the Falkland Islands....Hundreds of British Forces Personnel lost their lives and many more Argentine troops and sailors also died during the ensuing weeks. It was a short, but very nasty little war and I would like to pay tribute to and remember ALL of the fallen, both British and Argentinian.
April Fool's day, but it's also my wedding anniversary today....723 years....and yes, I still love her, probably more than ever! Mind you, I did insist way back then on getting married AFTER mid-day!
Having spent most of the day at a swimming gala where my daughter was taking part in a County relay competition, things turned a little sour for me due to the appalling behaviour of a group of a dozen or so very bored 10 - 14 year-old girls and their parents from a particular swimming club whose name I shan't divulge for the sake of the few decent swimmers and parents that they do have.
Having escaped early from the typically hot and humid spectator's gallery, I was waiting in the gallery area of the leisure-centre foyer while my daughter insisted upon remaining poolside to cheer on her team in the final event of the session. At this point, two young lads, about 10 and 14 years old, entered the building at the main entrance. They were very alike in appearance and were obviously brothers, but they drew attention from people around them because they were both pure albino. Unfortunately, they also caught the eye of the teenage girls. Their reaction to the sight of two such obviously albino young lads was apparently more than they could bear and shouts of "Hey look....albino kids!", "Arrgh....freaks...Gross!" "Look Becky....mutants!" echoed from the gallery to reverberate around the centre with total disregard for how such behaviour might be making the boys feel. Even the two mothers with the girls were joining in!
There was, I'm afraid, considerably more of the same and it soon became obvious to me that the boys were finding the entire episode very distressing. The older boy in particular, was close to tears while the younger lad was more defiant! However, it was when the boys tried to retreat to the outside of the building and away from the outrageous and entirely unsolicited verbal harrassment and when the girls (now exhibiting something akin to rodent "pack" behaviour and egged-on by the dim-witted parents), ran down the stairs to follow them, still shouting abuse, that I decided to intervene. No-one else seemed particularly bothered!
I made my way to poolside and strode up to the girl's so-called senior swimming coach and gave him a brief description of his swimmer's behaviour. I explained in words of no more than two syllables (to be on the safe side) that the assault was still on-going and asked if he could do something about it. He looked at me and said quite simply...."It's not my problem mate"....and walked away from me.
Expecting such a reaction, but now quite cross, I returned to the foyer gallery and confronted the two mothers concerning the behaviour of their rampaging offspring who, by this time, had followed the unhappy boys back into the building and were continuing to laugh, gesticulate and cat-call at their unfortunate victims!
I suggested that the women call an immediate halt to the girl's behaviour or I would refer the matter to security. At this point, one of the women (possibly named "Ug") muttered something incomprehensible in a previously believed to be extinct primeval language and then called down to one of the girls...
"Mandy, get up 'ere, quick like!" Mandy ran up to her mother along with several of her friends.
"Get yer father. 'e's got some sorting out to do!"
Mrs Ug returned her gaze to me "now yer for it gobshite!" she said.
While I did my level best to explain to the humanoid creatures that the behaviour of their spawn was totally unacceptable (hand gestures helped a little), Mandy arrived back with her father, along with two other dad-types of the same species and a bewildered-looking older youth, possibly a sibling of some sort.
"Who the F**K d'you think you are pal" said the beer-bellied, sweating, red-faced male as he jabbed his finger into my chest. The clink of my dog-tags (we still wear them for ID purposes when rangering) accompanied the man's gurgle of pain as he dropped to his knees! I continued to apply pressure to the finger joint and said quite simply "get your girls to leave those two boys alone or I'll tell security. Do you understand?". He grunted. I let go and walked away. It was a satisfying moment, but not one to be entirely proud of.
Meanwhile the two boys had disappeared, probably gone to play the harmless game of squash they'd come to play in the first place (they had squash rackets).
Anyone desperate enough to have read "Slices" on www.wildliferanger.co.uk will know that I don't like bullies....I tend to go very, very cold, very focused and my heart-rate slows quite significantly when I witness bullying in any form. My reaction to bullying has landed me in all kinds of trouble over the years and will probably get me seriously hurt or even killed one day. I know exactly what it's like to be on the receiving end of such relentless abuse (remember, I've been married for 723 years!) and it was an area thoroughly examined by my shrink during all the years of psycho-therapy I had back throughout 1990s and into the naughties.
Three of Note....
In a week crammed full of typically upsetting and depressing news stories, there were three slightly more curious ones that caught my attention....
1....Apparently (according to "statistics"), an average of three people are killed every year in the UK trying to put on their under-pants or knickers while standing on the landing at home. How? It seems they get their foot stuck as they try to put it through the leg-hole of said underwear then overbalance and fall down the stairs!
2....A school headmaster and his board of governors tried to place an advertisement this week for a new classroom teacher. The ad included the words "the successful applicant must have drive and enthusiasm". Fair enough you'd think, but apparently not....the local authority took one look at the ad and immediately instructed the head to remove the above phrase on the grounds that it was "ageist"! Er....presumably they feel that "older" applicants, such as myself, would feel that "drive and enthusiasm" are unfair pre-requisites, given our advancing years and retreating vim/vigour! Hang on though....isn't THAT an ageist assumption in itself? Mmm, I could go on about how unfair it is I suppose, but I just can't be bothered!
3....Finally (concerning the press coverage of this week's international football matches), could someone please explain to me exactly how it is that Scotland losing 2-0 to Italy is a better result than England beating Andorra 3-0....or have I missed something?
I saw my first Swallow of the year flying across the A40 just east of Northleach late this afternoon! Last year, it was the 31st March near Naunton and, In 2005, I saw a pair of Swallows in Chaceley (I wasn't the only one to see them), near Tewkesbury on the 1st January (see the "Miscellaneous" page on www.wildliferanger.co.uk)!
I also saw my first Blackcap of 2007 today near Burford and the Chiff-Chaff has returned to the end of my garden already!
It was the above butterfly however, that gave me an even bigger shock than the 2005 Swallows....I was delighted to spot this beauty in a Burford garden today, thinking at the time that it was a Brimstone, but when I got to see it on the computer screen, something didn't seem quite right....the brown spots on the wings look wrong for one thing, but it's the "feathering" on the legs that make me think that this is, in fact, a Cleopatra Butterfly!
If I'm right. then this is not only a first for me, but probably for a lot of other people as well....because Cleopatras only live in the furthest reaches of Southern Europe, especially around the Mediterranean! This little fella must be a long, long way from home!
I would welcome the views of any erstwhile lepidopterists out there....our own insect expert, Lofty, is currently yomping around the coast of Devon at the moment doing the survey stuff that I should be doing....as for the weather....it's fantastic of course....typical!
Delighted to be home, but still feeling very out of sorts, Leah managed to make absolutely certain that her bandage (the one covering the "wound" where the hydration drip was inserted into her leg) was conspicuously placed for everyone to see and admire. However, having barely managed to find the strength required to collapse onto a convenient pile of comfy pillows, it wasn't long before she was fast asleep and dreaming of chasing chocolate Rabbits!
Leah had a fairly comfortable night apparently and the vet rang early to say that we would be able to pick her up around lunch-time!
When we got there, she was still slightly sedated and that, combined with an inability to use her front right leg properly, meant that she was very wobbly. Even so, she was very pleased to see us and couldn't wait to get into the car!
Once home, all she really had the energy to do was collapse on her blanket and fall asleep. The lack of ability to co-ordinate the movement of the leg tends to make her look like a drunken dressage horse as she tries desperately to walk normally. However, she just can't seem to make contact with the ground without first lifting her paw right up in the air each time. It's a strange thing to watch and I'm sure it upsets her. Still, thirty-six hours ago, I didn't think she'd be coming home at all. She was very poorly! I'm glad that she's home again.
Maybe the leg will return to normal soon....I certainly hope so. I have to lift her up and down things like steps at the moment! Her appetite's back to normal though!
Leah Really Poorly!
I Should have been off to Devon today, but my dog, Leah, was taken seriously ill this morning! She suddenly lost all sense of balance and any control over her movement, particularly on her right-hand side! I immediately thought she'd had a stroke until she was sick as well. At that point, I thought it might be some sort of vestibulitis-type attack.
We took her to our brilliant vet and he felt that a stroke was unlikely, but couldn't rule it out. However, he also leaned toward vestibulitis, but warned that it appeared to be quite serious and possibly of the more dangerous inner-ear type rather than the outer. He insisted on keeping her at the clinic for at least 24 hours under observation and she's now sedated, having first been given anti-emetics. She's also on a hydration drip.
She's apparently "comfortable" at the moment and she could have as much as an 80% chance of pulling through. It's all very worrying though and I can't relax!
Meanwhile, I'd like to thank Lofty for interrupting his own busy work-schedule in the New Forest and being prepared to set off for Devon in my place....he knows I wont leave Leah....not for anything!
Now we wait!
As I've mentioned before, bewildered reader, lunch for me usually involves sitting down for half an hour or so to eat my door-stop sandwich beside a babbling brook or in some sun-dappled woody glade....or, more likely, in the corner of yet another rain-sodden muddy field out in the middle of nowhere! Well, today was no different when, in the bright, nearly warm, late afternoon/early Spring sunshine, I finally managed to find a reasonably dry place to rest my weary bones beneath the spreading branches of an ancient tree at the edge of a large woodland overlooking a typical English country meadow. It was also close to a flowering plant called a "Hairy Violet" that I'd paused for a few minutes previously to photograph. Sadly, the name is not a particularly attractive one, but I suspect that it may well derive from traditional folk tales concerning the girl who once held her breath long enough to give me my first ever kiss when I was just a boy....probably because of a bet she lost!
I'm pretty sure (though not absolutely certain) that this is a "Hairy Violet", if only because of its downy leaves and lack of runners. I don't think it's the more familiar "Common Dog-Violet", even though the "Hairy" variety shouldn't really be flowering until well into April while its "Dog-Violet" cousin is known to flower as early as February.
It's at about this point, usually when I'm about half-way through my cheese and brown-sauce door-stop sarny, that my presence is often detected and subsequently investigated by any of a wide range of irrepressibly nosey, but ever hopeful creatures. These might include anything from overly-inquisitive Cows, Bulls, Rabbits, Squirrels, Wood-mice and Weasels to apoplectically stroppy Jays and other assorted Corvids as well as mercenary Wildfowl and, of course, the inevitable desperately territorial Robin....even the odd Deer or two has been known to give-in to overwhelming curiosity and wander across towards me, but only if I'm prepared to sit as still as a thing that is very, very still indeed!
"Excuse me mister....What you doin'?"
Today however, I had two visitors....firstly, a Spring Lamb who, for reasons best known to himself, decided to walk virtually right up to me away from the relative safety of his flock grazing about fifty metres away towards the middle of the meadow, before gambolling off once again to be with his obviously relieved mother! Then, at this point, a slightly belligerent Song Thrush dropped to the ground from a nearby tree. He was, predictably, a lot less than pleased about me being there! He gradually made his way to within about four metres of my sandwich to make his feelings known, but didn't actually say no to a few bread-crumbs tossed in his direction!
"Hey Mush....I think you ought to know that this happens to be MY own personal space, right, but I might let you stay a bit longer if you give me some of your sandwich....besides, you SHOULD be looking after me....I'm a seriously declining species you know!"
These photos were taken with my little freebee pocket camera and came out alrightish because the animals came quite close of their own accord. I've always maintained that if you want to experience anything special when you're out for a walk in the countryside, then you should always be prepared to set aside half an hour or so to sit very still and very quiet in some likely-looking place and you'll nearly always be rewarded. It's really worth it, believe me, but it takes a different mindset, lots of patience and a certain amount of practise in choosing the best places.
Quite a high proportion of my so-called wildlife photographs are obtained this way without a hint of the long lenses so beloved of professionals. Obviously, their efforts are always far superior to my own technically, but I'll always prefer the personal touch afforded by the "connection" I like to achieve between the animal and myself. Anyhoo....whatever your preference, the first rule for amateur and professional alike, is NEVER BE WITHOUT A CAMERA OF SOME SORT, WHEREVER YOU MIGHT HAPPEN TO BE!
A Few More Beauties
So many wildflowers to photograph at the moment....I think I've already snapped about sixty species, including twenty-three new ones....Unbelievable really! The trouble is, everyone around here is convinced that the weather's going to turn by the beginning of next week and get all wintry again! On the other hand, I suppose it's been nice this week for the Cheltenham Gold-Cup festival.
Normally flowering from April to july, Germander Speedwell (didn't I used to be at school with him?) has always been a "lucky" flower to the Irish, but according to English folklore and legend, terrible harm will befall the eyes of anyone foolish enough to pick this delicate little flower...."real" Gypsies never touch it for example!
I live just a few miles from Cheltenham racecourse and always get as far away as possible from Cheltenham and the horrendous Gold-Cup-associated traffic. In fact, I've never been to the races myself, ever and I get quite concerned when the weather is warm and sunny because the ground firms-up very quickly and the horses are more likely to suffer fatal injuries....I think that around nine of them died or had to be put down over the four days of last year's races and that's an awful lot for one festival!
Lesser Periwinkle usually flowers from April to May and is another species for whom disaster might lurk just around the corner if the weather turns all wintry again! All manner of mammals, birds, invertebrates, flowers and insects (especially Butterflies) have been fooled into thinking that it's Spring already, but I seriously worry that Winter isn't finished with us quite yet and that all these species might soon be suffering considerably! Perhaps I could invent a brand-new name for all this seasonal muddlement....how about Seasonal Inversion Disorder (SID) or Season Displacement Condition (SDC) or maybe Displaced Environmental Ecological Pollution Seasonal Hiatus Inversion Trauma?.... or whatever! One thing's for certain, the polititcans aren't going to be able to get their heads around any of it until some expert or other gives the whole damn situation a name for the media to latch on to!
I suppose it's typical really that the weather is about to turn for the worse....I'm supposed to be off to the Devon coastline before the end of the month, yomping and bivouacking and doing all sorts of ranger survey stuff for a week or so! I guess I'll have to work using my van as more of a base than I'd planned, but even then I shall have to bivi overnight at least a couple of times on the longer walks....I'll have to see how it goes!
Mistletoe....well, what do you know....something actually flowering when it's supposed to....but then Mistletoe always has been a plant thought to be imbued with ancient and special powers. It's green shoots sprouting from the branches of seemingly lifeless Winter trees have always given it more than an air of mystery. It's modern association with Christmas and kissing are the last vestiges of its pagan associations with the Winter Solstice and ancient fertility rites!
Grape Hyacinth is fairly rare in the wild, so I was pleased to stumble upon this solitary specimen beside a small stream on the outskirts of Cirencester, especially since I wouldn't expect to see too many anywhere much before April. The fact that it's a paler blue colour could mean two things....that this specimen isn't actually a fertile plant (the fertile ones tend to be a much darker blue) and that its a garden escape anyway!
Now here's something that you CAN expect to see in March, or even earlier....Colt's Foot is closely related to the Butterbur and both plants are unusual in that they produce their flowers before their leaves which gradually appear as the flowers begin to die back. Colt's Foot was widely used at one time to relieve coughs and chest ailments, including tuberculosis....something alluded to by both Charles Dickens and the Bronte Sisters in their novels. I also vaguely remember reading somewhere that the Latin name for Colt's Foot, Tussilago farfara, derives from the Latin tussis, meaning "cough", but don't hold me to that.
Doubtless a garden escape, this cascade of pink and crimson was just one section of a much larger bush growing half-way up a grass embankment beside a Wiltshire country lane, but what is it? A Viburnum maybe?
Just to prove that even the trees are determined not to miss out on all the current confusion in the world of Mother Nature, this Chinese Weeping-Wllow probably began sprouting its leaves a couple of days ago, but has also decided to produce a very healthy quota of catkins as well....in this case, female catkins!
I thought I'd upload a few photos of some of the flowers I've spotted so far this Spring....mostly during my long, long walks through woods, across fields and meadows and along country lanes over the past two weeks or so. These have given me ample opportunity to take special note of exactly what's happening at the moment in our wilder places and I've written it all down in notebooks, drawn sketches, made marks on maps, added data to graphs and spreadsheets and taken hundreds of photographs....and the upshot of all that work? Well, apart from passing it all on to my Boss for him to use as he sees fit, I'd say that everything from Plantains to Plovers and Bees to Badgers are, on average, about two weeks ahead of normal, with a few things as much as two months ahead of schedule!
Lesser Celandines are well known for having anything from eight to twelve petals....while the examples above have either eight or nine.
That there is some kind of a "shift" in the natural sequential order of things is undeniable, whatever your stance on global-warming....the evidence is there for everyone to see! Personally, I've never seen such widespread and seemingly random change! There has always been the occasional early Swallow or the odd year when every Rook from St. Ives to St. Andrews chooses to re-locate its nest higher up the trees in lieu of an unusually wet Summer.
One of the classic heralds of Spring, the good old Narcissus, boasts more than fifty different species plus thousands of cultivars.
I once made a note in my 1969 diary when I spotted two Peacock Butterflies in mid-December and another note in January 1974 when my parent's garden was inundated with hundreds of Ladybirds! Such things happen without apparent rhyme or reason....one-off anomalies, mysterious, but isolated incidents that may baffle the experts for a while, but are soon absorbed back into the greater scheme of things.
Primrose Yellow, Primula Light-Pink and Primula Dark-Pink
Whatever's going on out there in the wild at the moment however, is an altogether different bag of eels! There must surely be something very "causal" about it all, but exactly what that might be is extremely difficult to pin down....and I'm no scientist!. There are far too many incidents happening right across the board for them to be classed as truly isolated anymore and it's virtually impossible to predict exactly where it might all be leading, let alone how it all started in the first place!
This Spotted Dead-Nettle is blooming about two weeks earlier than average....good news for the many insects already out and about!
Birds reluctant to complete their migrations, species gradually spreading further and further north and others nose-diving into virtual extinction within ten-year time-spans! Summer insects appearing in huge numbers in the middle of Winter, flowers blooming as much as two months earlier than usual, birds trying to raise their first broods of the year weeks before the pre-requisite food supplies, such as caterpillars, will be available. Meanwhile, exceedingly damp Winters are proving to be detrimental, if not catastrophic, to certain species, such as Barn Owls, while, simultaneously, swathes of mostly deciduous woodland continue to show disturbing signs of long-term dehydration (work that one out for yourselves) and both ancient and new diseases of trees are becoming more and more prevalent!
On the left, you might say "fresh as a Daisy" while the picture on the right is of yet another garden escape, but miles from the nearest garden!
I've said it elsewhere...Nature really is in a bit of a pickle and I just can't see how the balance can ever be restored!
This is another shot of the Common Comfrey shown on the "Home Page" of this site and is flowering as much as two months earlier than normal. I took the photo near what remains of the possible defensive ditch at Queen Margaret's Camp in Tewkesbury and I have my own theory about the Common Comfrey growing in unusually large quantities in certain parts of Tewkesbury that I believe no-one else has ever considered....
4th May, 1471 was the date and Tewkesbury the place of the second-but-last battle in the Wars of the Roses (only Bosworth and Stoke Field were to follow), waged as it was between the Houses of Lancaster and York....basically, it was Margaret of Anjou v Edward IV with Wenlock and Somerset on the bench for Maggie and Gloucester (Richard III) and Hastings warming up on the touchline for Ted! (Incidentally, the York/Lancaster emnity persists to this day if swimming competitions are anything to go by!).
Built during the 13th Century and originally a Manor Farm, Gupshill Inn is situated at the more southerly end of the battlefield and just across the way from Queen Margaret's camp. A now annual and very popular "Battle of Tewkesbury" re-enactment takes place in a large field adjacent to the Inn. Apropos of nothing, My Mum was a silver-service waitress here at weekends from when I was seven until I was about ten. She did this in addition to holding down a full-time factory job and another part-time waitressing job at the Abbey Mill! Meanwhile, I used to get paid a shilling a week by the Gupshill's landlord to look after "Blondie", his very large, very belligerent and very black Billy Goat! Why me? Well, I was just about the only person that Blondie would tolerate to go anywhere near him!
Having arrived in the UK via Weymouth with nothing to declare except maybe a few thousand men-at-arms, a six-pack of lager and two hundred Benson and Hedges, Margaret headed for Gloucester, but apparently lost time at Bristol (probably a hold-up at junction 16) where she re-supplied at Ye Olde Tescos. Maggie was desperate however, to cross the River Severn into Wales to join forces with Jasper Tudor (great name!), but the bridge at Gloucester was, by then, heavily defended against her. Stalked by Edward most of the way and not wanting to cross a wide, hazardous river way out in the open, she moved her forces on the 3rd May to Tewkesbury and a narrower, potentially safer crossing place. Much of the battle was probably protracted, sporadic and skirmishing in nature, but the main event took place to the south-west of the town in an area subsequently called "Bloody Meadow" and was close to the Gupshill Inn where presumably, everyone stopped fighting around lunchtime for a quick pint and chicken-nuggets in a basket!.
Queen Margaret chose to set up camp on top of what was probably some kind of ancient burial site....expanding upon its ditches and raised areas as well as utilizing the natural lay of the land. This is where we often used to play as children, defending the central mound from all-comers and swinging from ropes tied to the huge Elm trees that grew there....until Dutch Elm disease wiped them all out along with half the trees in the UK! The photo on the right shows the most southerly of the houses built just after WWII on Priors Park estate where I lived for much of my childhood. Many of the roads there have names such as York Road, Lancaster Road, Queens Road, Wenlock Road, Somerset Place and Margaret Road. The picture on the right shows part of the brand-new and fairly extensive housing estate built by Bovis Homes. Personally, it's the last place I'd buy a home because most of the new housing is actually built exactly where I used to go rafting on the metre-deep flood-waters that resulted from the really bad Winters that we used to get in those days, such as the Winter of 1962/1963! Apparently Bovis insist that their drainage measures are more than adequate to deal with any flooding, but I don't think those guys were around in Tewkesbury back then when the entire Severn Valley flood-plain disappeared beneath vast areas of flood-water and raised board-walks had to be erected along the main streets in Tewkesbury itself just to get people from one end of the town to the other! Basically, all they really needed to do was ask themselves just why exactly it's called the "Severn Valley flood-PLAIN"...Duh!
By the way, I had a chat while taking the above photos, with a passing young couple in their twenties from Priors Park. They'd wanted to know what I was doing. When I explained, they were quite surprised....they said that they didn't realize that all the ditches, lumps and bumps were anything special at all and wanted to know if that's why then, the nearby primary school is called "Queen Margaret's"! You see, that's the problem with how history gets taught within the confines of the National Curriculum in schools today....everyone learns about the Romans and Oliver Cromwell per se, but few kids get the chance to learn something tangible and relevant about their own local history. There are too many bl**dy government targets and too many pointless and restrictive tests to work towards! Teachers have little opportunity to get creative or be spontaneous these days!
The decision was finally made to stand and fight rather than risk exhausted troops during a river-crossing and Somerset positioned his slightly superior force of around 6,000 men with the river at their rear (very wise). However, Edward won the toss and kicked-off with a heavy artillery bombardment, forcing Somerset to break his defensive formation and attack Edward's position. All would have been fine and Somerset would probably have prevailed, except that Wenlock apparently failed to support Somerset at a crucial moment and was reportedly executed by Somerset himself on the battlefield at half-time for cowardice!
Situated between the local golf club and Tewkesbury's Council offices, the "Bloody Meadow" bore witness to the most ferocious episodes of the day's fighting. Even today, the wildflowers that grow there are said (rather fancifully I think) to bloom for longer than those elsewhere and are far more vibrant in colour! My uncle Chris, the gamekeeper, used to regale me with stories of ghostly soldiers to be seen sometimes marching across the meadow at night and of a terrified nobleman running screaming from the distant din of clashing swords....or maybe it's just a trick of the light and the wind in the trees!
Without significant support, Somerset was eventually forced to retreat and, according to an embedded CNN reporter at the time, the remaining Lancastrians, upon seeing this, capitulated! More than 2,000 troops died that day, both on the battlefield and all along the banks of the River Severn during a particularly savage rout. Somerset sought sanctuary along with dozens of others in nearby Tewkesbury Abbey, but all were eventually dragged from their refuge and executed on the site of what is now Tewkesbury's war memorial! Queen Margaret managed to escape, but her son was killed!
The informative "Battle-Board" situated at the start of "Battle Walk" which takes the interested visitor for a leisurely stroll around the principal battlefield locations.
Nearly 600 years later and when I was a boy, my Gran would send me out to gather armfuls of Common Comfrey (mostly from areas close to Queen Margaret's camp), which she then prepared as an anti-inflammitory to combat her growing rheumatic problems. She also used it regularly to treat the family's assorted cuts and bruises as well as my cousin Christopher's eczema and occasionally fed it to us fried in batter if we were ever sick...."it cleanses the bowels Donald!" she would say, "so sit up, open your mouth and stop your moaning!"....and it certainly did everything she promised....and more besides! Beware though, it can be harmful if consumed in larger quantities! My uncle Bill used it as fertilizer on his allotment where I would scrog Crab-apples for Mum to make apple-jelly!
This is one of the first photographs I ever took. It's of my Gran and Grandad circa 1955 and taken near their old barn. The camera belonged to my uncle Sid who let me borrow it as often as I liked (as long as he was with me). He even got his friend to develop most of the pictures for me. The first camera I ever actually owned was a little Kodak "Brownie", but lack of money usually meant that I had to make a roll of film last for weeks. Even so, I managed to take hundreds of black and white photographs throughout the 1950s and 1960s, most of which are stored in old shoeboxes in various cupboards....I'll sort them out and copy them to disc one day. You'd think that with more than fifty years of photography under my belt, I'd be good at it by now!
Anyhoo, Common Comfrey's medicinal qualities were not lost on the physicians of 600 years ago either and it would almost certainly have been gathered by the cart-load from near and far for use on both the sick and wounded alike! It was greatly valued and I believe that the unusually high concentrations of Common Comfrey found on the south-western edge of the town is a consequence of what must have been very intensive use of the plant in that area so long ago. As I say, it's only my theory and I dare say that experts will find a dozen reasons for me to be wrong, but I have noticed similar high concentrations of Common Comfrey either on or around and about other Battlefield sites dotted throughout the UK that I've visited down the years (Nearby Goodrich Castle, site of a battle between Cromwell and Royalists during the English Civil War is a good example). Crikey, maybe I could write a book....I must surely be boring enough!
Could this be Ivy-Leaved Bellfower? Probably not....it has no sepals!
29 Cdo Soldier Killed in Action
WO Michael Smith (39) of 29 Cdo Regiment, Royal Artillery died from wounds following a grenade attack on his position in Helmand Province, Afghanistan today.
42 Cdo Fatality
Ben Reddy (22) of K Coy 42 (four two) Cdo Royal Marines was killed in the Kajaki district of Helmand Province, Afghanistan yesterday when his unit came under fire during a "clearance" operation.
Just one is one too many, but I seem to be doing an awful lot of these tributes just lately! I've also noticed that the death of a single soldier in either Afghanistan or Iraq apparently no longer merits placement as the lead story in TV and radio news bulletins anymore and rarely seems to make the front page of the newspapers either....I guess it's Northern Ireland all over again!
Two Soldiers Killed!
Two soldiers of 29 (two nine) Cdo Regiment, Royal Artillery were killed in a rocket attack yesterday in the Sangin District of Helmand Province, Afghanistan. They were Lance Bombadier Ross Clark (25) and Lance Bombadier Liam "Paddy" McLaughlin (21). They make the 49th and 50th British soldiers to be killed in Afghanistan since operations began in 2001....It's all so unbelievably sad!
What Were They Thinking?
What the heck are the organizers of the Duke of Edinburgh's "Ten Tors" Survival/Endurance exercise/hike doing allowing 85 teams of teenage school kids out onto the wilds of Dartmoor on a weekend forecast to have such abysmal weather!?!
Ok, so the skies were clear up here, in my neck of the woods last night, but you MUST take heed of the forecasts....the South-West has taken a real bludgeoning over the last 24 hours and there's probably more to come tomorrow! We all studied the weather outlook on Saturday and everyone thought it would be better to stay indoors with a mug of cocoa and a good book (I only went out myself to take a few pictures of Magpies in an orchard)....it would have taken something very important to get any of us out on the Moors of all places this weekend! Crikey, even Sean decided to stay at home and have a couple of days off....and, like Joe, he's a former extreme conditions survival instructor....amongst other things!
85 teams made up of mostly 14, 15 and 16 year-olds were all forced to seek emergency shelter....except for the 3 teams that had to be bl**dy rescued and the two that aren't accounted for yet! Meanwhile, one 14 year-old girl gets swept away by a flash-flood and three others in her team are marginally hypothermic! I also hear that two other people have died in a separate incident in Cornwall, having been swept into the sea from the harbour wall down at Mullion!
The DofE Ten Tors Challenge is a brilliant thing for youngsters to undertake and there will always be risks for them to negotiate every step of the way....that's what helps to build the kid's characters, develop their leadership skills and teach them all about the importance of team ethic. Sometimes though, when it's KNOWN that the conditions are going to turn against you big-time, then it's not so much a "step" too far for such inexperienced youngsters, than a leap into the abyss!
I hear that the teenage girl swept away yesterday was actually rescued and resuscitated at the scene, but sadly, she died in hospital during the night. My own daughter is fourteen years old and there was another as well, once upon a time ago....I know exactly what the girl's parents are feeling....I get so ANGRY!!! On a more positive note however, I understand that all the DofE teams are now safe and accounted for....but it could have been much worse for an awful lot of them!
Total Lunar Eclipse
The past couple of nights have witnessed total eclipses of the moon, when dust in the Earth's atmosphere has, during the final phases of the process, caused the light from the Sun to turn it a spooky (some would say sinister) blood-red. My uncle Chris (the gamekeeper) used to call it a "Blood Moon" and I remember how, when I was a boy, I sat out in the garden with him and my cousins during an identical event. He took the time to explain to us why it happened and how lots of people saw it as a dreaded harbinger of bad luck. He told us that it was a time for White Witches to gather in large numbers all over the world to perform secret rituals in an effort to protect their communities from infertility, pestilence and disease! I understand that modern-day White Witches continue to gather, even today and were probably performing those self-same rituals while I was taking these very photographs!
I'm afraid that the twelve pictures in the following sequence from "Full Moon" right through to "Blood Moon" are a lot less than pin-sharp. Unfortunately, there was a thin haze of cloud covering the Cotswolds here in deep, dark Gloucestershire, but I hope that they will at least demonstrate the basic process of the event for those who may have missed it for themselves....
Things were fairly dull and long-winded (despite my efforts to do shadow "bunny-ears") until picture seven, when the ever-lessening sliver of fully illuminated lunar surface suddenly went incandescent for a minute or two and it was as this additional brightness faded that the Moon finally started to take on its characteristic "blood-red" tinge. This gradually deepened, but It was at this point that I stopped taking photographs and went back indoors to watch "Match of the Day".
I live just a few miles from Sudeley Castle, Winchcombe and I had to walk out that way today doing bits of ranger stuff. About a mile or so from the town I started noticing lots of police and assorted Middle-Eastern/Asian security-type people milling about the lanes and in the surrounding fields. This was about 1030 hours, so I sat down in a convenient tree-line, well out of sight near the top of a hill and had a bite to eat while I took in all the goings-on. Something pretty big was obviously "going down" (is that the right expression?) and I didn't want to stumble into what might have been important anti-terrorism/security doo-dahs or similar of that ilk....so I rang the boss. He said he'd find out what was going on and told me to stay put. Ten minutes later he called back to say that apparently it was probably just Liz Hurley's security entourage "securing" the area before tomorrow's big day (she's getting married at the castle) and that the police were restricting traffic along the roads and checking people for passes or whatever. He also said that it's been given quite a high security status and that VIPs would already be arriving at the castle. Oh....and he told me not to do anything silly!
Obviously disappointed that Ms Hurley had failed to provide me with a personally signed, gold embossed, access-all-areas secuity pass thingy, I was now faced with the problem of still having to get into Winchcombe, but that meant either taking a five mile detour on foot across sometimes tricky terrain or going straight on in without alerting the security bods monitoring the fields! What to do? What to do?
Well, all that I can say is, modern security methods that utilize all that techno/gadgetry/gizmo stuff....radio coms, ear-pieces, GPS, IR, Armani suits, expensive shoes, big flash cars and even a private helicopter may be great for the more urbanized environment, but it can be found wanting way out in the "jungle habitats" of rural Gloucestershire!
I would also argue that instead of constantly talking to some guy thirty metres away via your Britney hands-free, you might try, for example, watching what the birds are doing....some species get all rattled when people approach, others get all territorial and follow you wherever you go (unless you know how to discourage them), a few get all chirpy, while some go very, very quiet.
You must be prepared to use your eyes and ears differently as well....most shapes in the city are hard and angular, but rural shapes are mostly soft and changeable and the land itself has a kind of rhythm that you can learn to tune yourself in to (that's pretty much how I manage to get close enough to photograph so much wildlife when I don't use a digi-scope). Sound, light and shadow all behave differently as well and, if you're dressed for it, you can work all of these things to your advantage. Trust me, creeping up on wildlife to take close-up chocolate-boxy photos is a whole lot tougher than avoiding people wandering about all over the place....especially the ones not doing any of the right things!
Lose the ear-pieces gentlemen....and the shades and, above all, stop charging around so much. Take much more time....sit down....study the lay of the land and expect "hostiles" to be in the least likely places as well as all of the more likely ones! Don't be afraid to get your expensive Italian shoes dirty and try to stay off the beaten track! A lot of you guys must be ex-forces, but desert and urban tactics don't work quite so well in the heart of the Cotswolds!
Twenty big tough guys walking about and chattering to each other all the time may be ok in order to deter the general public and the less desirable elements of the press, but I would argue that just four experienced, rural-type old duffers could detect any interloper within a half-mile radius of Sudeley Castle (or any other country estate for that matter) by mostly just sitting very still and keeping out of sight. Nor would they ever have to use any of those silly gadgety wotsits. Instead, they'd employ all the little country ways they've learnt while growing up on the local farm....stuff that they have a profound understanding of in an environment they have a total empathy for. Unfortunately however, they wouldn't be able to actually deal with any serious threat, let alone neutralize it....and that's where the city guys come charging in the door and my plan goes hurtling out the window! Mmmm....perhaps a combination of the two, with the old duffers doing the detecting bit and the tough guys ready to pounce when needed!
Seriously though, if my intentions today had been anything other than benign, then....
Oh well, when the hour cometh and the plan is put to the test etc....Security will, hopefully, only have to deal with a few score of excitable Hurley et al fans plus a pack or two of slavering paparazzi sniffer-dogs....eazy-peezy lemon-squeezy!
Still, I can't help thinking that If I was in charge of Hurley's security arrangements, then I would always be expecting the worst....and preparing for it....especially in the kind of location where my people might only have minimal experience! At the very least, some idiot-brained ranger wally wouldn't wriggle his fat backside past me....I can promise you that!
More worryingly, just one very motivated and extremely patient hostile with a gut-full of spite, a few survival skills and an expensive scoped rifle is all it would take....someone who came prepared say, more than a week ago, to dig himself a cosy, award-winningly camouflaged little fox-hole with a LoS position 800 metres away on the hillside over-looking the east side of the castle.
Still, not to worry....it's only a wedding isn't it....albeit an A-list celebrity's wedding....to some very rich Asian guy (Indian I think)....I mean, what would some terrorist cahone gain from slotting a famous film star....right under our noses....amidst all that security....think of the publicity....the kudos!
Unfortunately though, I can't help thinking about how one man with an intimate knowledge of the local terrain managed to WCW right through all that security today....in broad daylight....twice....but then, I had to get back home again didn't I?
Meanwhile....congratulations to Ms Hurley and her Beau. I hope they have a wonderful day and a long and very happy life together.
Died Protecting His Unit!
I'd like to pay special tribute to 21 year-old Daniel Lee Coffey of 10 Platoon, C Coy, 2nd Battalion, The Rifles who was killed in Basra yesterday. Daniel actually gave his life to protect members of his unit who were ambushed while on routine foot patrol. This was his second tour of duty in Iraq, having returned to active service as a volunteer only two months after completing his first tour. He had apparently expressed concerns about the welfare of his comrades who were still serving in Basra and was keen to return to them!
I received an anonymous and somewhat unpleasantly worded criticism yesterday in the form of an e-mail from someone who, according to them, is a regular visitor to this site. They apparently feel that it's not my place to "remember" troops killed in action on this website, that it's nothing to do with me, that my motives are "obviously political" and that, IF they want to read about such things, then they'll "buy a newspaper"! There was more in similar vein!
By way of reply, I would like to say that I have absolutely no qualms or reservations whatsoever about paying my own personal tribute to any of those who give their lives in the service of their country. I am not in the least bit concerned with the political debate or exactly why our troops are out there in the first place....I pretty much despise all politicians anyway, whatever their political persuasion or self-serving motives! The simple fact is that our troops ARE out there and a handful of words now and then on this website is my way of letting them know that I CARE and, if that's a problem for you Anon. then TOUGH S**T!
I personally feel that US and UK combat-related deaths in either Iraq or Afghanistan have become so common-place of late that the media's reporting of them has grown similar in style to the equally detached detailing of suicide-bomber casualty figures and reduced to little more than a numbers game....one today, three yesterday, fifteen last week (how many will it take to sell newspapers tomorrow?)....and, perhaps for the majority of the general public, it is now little more than that as well....a game in which comparable totals are simply listed in their newspaper at breakfast-time or mentioned briefly on TV while they consume their evening meal....True or not, the casualties are all too easily forgotten!
That's just one reason why I started my own little remembrance list of combat fatalities in this diary, albeit mostly consisting of Royal Marines....I want people to go on remembering them! The main reason however, would be one that all the "Anons" (like you, my mystery e-mailer) in the world put together could never begin to understand....the fact that once you've served in a combat troop, under-fire, alongside similar others, then you tend to feel a special concern for all those who follow after you. A concern borne out of an indefinable bond and a strange sense of guilt that you're not out there with them....wherever "out there" might happen to be.
Despite the training and all their equipment, you know only too well that each and every one of those desperately young soldiers currently serving in military combat zones around the world is just another ordinary human being, but a human being who might well end up feeling the exact same blinding terror that you once felt....that they may well experience the same incomprehensibly savage horrors that you once did and that most of all, they will probably never be able to forget any of it....the acrid stink of cordite tinged with the sickly stench of burning flesh and the haunting screams of shattered friends tends to hang around in your mind pretty much forever!
Perhaps the saddest thing of all Anon, is that, even years from now, many of those young men and women will still be too afraid to sleep at night for fear that the demons will come in their dreams....dark demons with gnashing teeth and ripping claws to tear shivering, bloody pieces from their tormented souls! So you see, I prefer to show I care....if only to make up for the social failings of all the self-centred, indifferent, unempathetic morons like you currently infecting the world today!
On the other hand, if just a single family of any soldier remembered here objects to what I do, then I shall stop doing it immediately and without hesitation!
If you're still with me Anon, then in order to put the Iraq and Afghanistan Coalition casualty situations into some kind of perspective, you might try logging on to a CNN website....Type cnn.com-special reports into your search-engine and a Coalition casualty report should be accessible from the first page of listings. This is an alphabetic or date-order (your choice) list of all Coalition fatalities occurring in Iraq since the invasion. There is a separate section for Afghanistan.
Casualty details are listed individually and include age, unit, country/home town of origin and a brief description of the circumstances surrounding each death. Photographs of almost all those featured are also provided which tends to drive home just how very young the vast majority of them were!
Warning....If you're planning to sit down and work your way through all of them, then just bear the following statistics in mind....as of yesterday, there have been 3,418 fatal Coalition casualties in Iraq plus nearly 25,000 wounded (not including MIA or POWs.). Meanwhile, Afghanistan has witnessed 529 Coalition fatalities to date with almost 1500 wounded! Altogether, that amounts to roughly the population of a medium-sized UK town....except that about 80% of the population would have to be around 20 years of age!
Well done CNN by the way, because every single Coalition fatality is listed and that's quite an achievement!
Equally (If Not Even More) Sobering....
No completely accurate figures concerning Iraqi civilian casualties are available, but if you would like to bring some sort of order out of the chaos of all those numbers you've heard quoted in the media over the last couple of years, then log on to a website called Iraqbodycount.net where the current estimates of civilian deaths in Iraq amongst all sections of the community are believed to be somewhere between 57,482 and 63,241 since the invasion by Coalition forces (based on data provided by external and in-situ official agencies). From this site, a database can also be accessed which highlights victim details, dates, times, places, events and casualty numbers for all known civilian fatalities. unfortunately, I know of no civilian casualty records for Afghanistan.
This, as I'm sure you can work out for yourself Anon (you must be gone by now though), would amount to the population of quite a large UK town with a spread of ages right across the board! For you however, I suppose all that kind of stuff is happening far too far away to be really worth bothering with....and I'm sure it can't be nice having people like me keep banging-on about it all the time, so it might be best if you run along now, top-up your big shiny 4x4 with (non-contaminated) Middle-Eastern fuel and get yourself down the pub....pronto!
Early....or Here All Along?
Horfield Leisure Centre, City of Bristol
I heard a Willow Warbler near Horfield Leisure Centre this afternoon.! My daughter was competing in a County swimming competition over the weekend and I heard the bird's song coming from a half acre-size area of undergrowth peppered with a handful of Birch trees as we returned to the car.
My daughter powers home to finish an exhausting 200m IM race while, later in the day, a spectator seeks diversion in the pages of a magazine during the long, hot, humid and energy-sapping periods between relevant events.
I've seen and heard Willow Warblers more and more throughout the winter period in recent years, but this is the first time I've noted one in the middle of a large city (on the other hand, I don't get into cities all that often, so no real surprise there)!
Sadly, Twitch's latest plans to utilize state-of-the-art satellite technology to establish exactly where Willow Warblers migrate to in the winter have been having some trouble getting off the ground!
This also begs the question....has this little summer visitor turned up in Bristol really early while en route to who knows where, or are the attractions of tropical Africa simply not what they were any more when compared to the heady delights of the increasingly mild UK winter?
Good For You Harry!
So many experts....so many opinions....so many people who just haven't got a clue!
Like his Gandpa and his uncle Andy before him, HRH Harry is prepared to put his life on the line for his Troop, his Regiment, his Grandma and his Country....You can't deny it, the boy's got sand! now, if only some of our politicians had the same kind of bottle!
With regard to his "safety", it could well be that "special" measures will be set in place every time he goes out on armoured patrol....possible advanced flank reconnaissance by Bgd of Gurkhas, Commachio or Special Forces, continuous and on-going close air-support or even the sudden, mysterious appearance of AWAC at 40,000 feet directly above his known position! If that's the case, then it certainly wont be easy for insurgents to get too close to him without someone raising the alarm, but that sort of thing renders any recce mission of his to be virtually pointless!. On the other hand, I believe he'll just probably be expected to get on with it, if only because the HCR (Blues and Royals) are a top, top regiment with a massive history and they wont want any element of theirs to be seen as getting any kind of special preferential, kid-glove or nurse-maid treatment....it's a regimental pride thing...but who knows?
Prince Andrew, Harry's uncle, piloted a Sea-King helicopter in the Falklands, ferrying troops and supplies into and out of the battle zones in all weathers, day and night! It was a tough, demanding and dangerous job and most such missions came under sometimes heavy fire from enemy ground positions. The often close proximity of Argentine fighter-aircraft was also a constant threat and, according to rumour, the Navy Harriers were kept particularly busy when Andrew was out and about! One Sea-King was downed at night in awful conditions with the loss of both crew and the entire SAS unit on board at the time (it could just have easily been Andrew)! On the other hand, Royal Marines competed to be flown to and fro by HRH, not so much because of his piloting skills (which were more than adequate by the way), but because he was always provided with the very best helicopter, maintained and serviced by the very best available ground crew....such is war!
Whatever special precautions are decided upon, if any, concerning Prince Harry, he will still be expected to undertake the job he was trained to do as a professional soldier serving in HM's armed forces. There will be an enormous expectation from all elements and all ranks within the military for him to be seen to be "doing his bit". I also personally believe that it will be extremely difficult for him, both emotionally and spiritually and as a highly-trained officer recently passed out of the Sandhurst system, not to pull his weight. I believe he's that sort of person! I also believe that the greatest threat to both Harry and his unit will actually come from the scoop-at-any-cost "idiot" contingency currently infecting the world's various press agencies. One wrong word or a single thoughtless press report and Prince Harry's entire unit could be compromised! What was it Cromwell once said...."Sometimes I am less afraid of the enemy than the misplaced words of a fool!"
Good luck Harry....when all else fails, trust your men, your CO, your God and, above all, your rat-ugly NCO!
Royal Marines Killed
(4th and 21st February)
Jonathan Holland, a Royal Marine of 45 (Four Five) Cdo has been killed in the Sangin District of Helmand Province in Southern Afghanistan today....I feel so sorry for his family and friends!
He follows the death of an, as yet, un-named Marine of 42 (four two) Cdo in an accident involving a Pinzgauer during a convoy deployment also in Helmand Province earlier this month.
Buff-Tailed Bumble Bee probably attracted to the illuminated colour patterns on the lamp-shade in the bedroom at home. I watched it as it tried to probe the lamp-shade fabric with its probosis, presumably searching for something to eat (a better shot of it doing this is on the "Home Page" of www.wildliferanger.co.uk).
As I've mentioned on the "Home Page" of www.wildliferanger.co.uk, this fantastic little Buff-Tail flew into my bedroom this evening and settled on the lamp-shade! I've seen several of its White-Tailed cousins throughout the winter and even a Yellow-Banded out and about weeks before it really should have been....not to mention the Wasp I saw recently and the one my daughter ejected from her bedroom back in January!
This is a photograph of a Buff-Tailed Bumble Bee from my Insect archive. I took it in the summer of 2006. The two sets of wings are clearly visible here and served the animal really well as, once released, it set off across the garden on yet another of those (allegedly) "impossible" flights of the Bumble Bee!
As far as I can make out, the Buff-Tail must have requested an early wake-up call....about two months early in fact!....I can't ever remember seeing one earlier than mid-March before today! Unfortunately however, this Bumble Bee and probably hundreds of others like it, will need to feed from flowers as soon as possible, but sadly, there aren't too many flowers out just yet, so there could be a problem!
Valentine's Day Meal for Two
I think I was in Tescos....or possibly Sainsburys first thing this morning (I'm never quite sure which one I'm in to be honest), and I noticed that they're selling special pre-packaged Valentine's Day meals for two. Ah, I thought, I could get one of those for me and pretend that somebody loves me! However, glancing at the label on the "Vegetarian Quorn Love-Bird Special", I noticed that the "best before" date was 13th February....Oh well, I tried!
I remember the only time I ever recieved a Valentine's card through the post....it was 1991, but I never got another....that card cost me 80 pence (plus postage) and I begrudge spending that much money just to feel wanted!
A Grand Day Out!
It was a cold day and snow and ice lay all about, deep and crisp and even (well, not exactly "all about" any more....or so "deep" maybe....or even "even"), but one praise-worthy family were still determined to have a good day out with the kids no matter what! A ride on the narrow-guage railway to please Dad, followed by a walk through the apple orchards down to the river and topped-off (probably) with a trip to the nearby garden-centre cafe for steaming mugs of hot chocolate and huge slices of cherry cake!
"Come on you lot!"
It only seems like five minutes since I was doing exactly the same sort of thing with my own kids when they were small and I found myself envying this little nuclear unit! Now my children are teenagers. My son is at university and my daughter does nothing but worry in case I embarrass her by breathing or something when she's out with me! Hey-ho...it's good to be needed!
A chilly walk down to the river, but with most people preferring to stay at home for fear that they might get an overdose of fresh air, it ought to be a very nice day out for a young family!
Meanwhile, I handed out one of my website cards to the family and asked if it would be ok to upload a picture of them on this site....they said that would be fine....so I have!
First-light and time to top-up the feeders and clear an area of snow upon which to deposit a sizeable pile of mixed seed so that the ground-feeding birds can also get something to eat (if you feed the birds, then please don't forget about the ground-feeders, they tend to miss out a bit in most gardens).
Having cleared an area of the garden of snow first thing this morning and replaced it with a couple of heaped shovelfuls of mixed seed, I went back indoors for breakfast. It wasn't long before the garden was full of all the usual suspects plus a whole bunch of reprobates from out in the surrounding fields.
"Uppity Bill" takes a moment to calm down and regain a sense of perspective after a very stressful morning trying to "see off" so many invaders to his beloved garden!
Twenty minutes later, I counted about forty Chaffinches hopping about in the snow (and a token Brambling), whilst dozens of assorted Tits and a couple of Siskin competed with Greenfinch and Goldfinch at the hanging feeders. Dunnock, as usual, spent more time chasing each other than actually eating anything and half-a-dozen Starling just squabbled for squabbling's sake! Three Pheasant dropped by for their share of seed at the trough and "DT", the Blackbird, defended against all-comers, the Bramley apple I'd crushed up for him! "Scraps", on the other hand, just got on with eating loads of sunflower hearts from his own little tray secreted in one corner of the garden and away from most marauders, while "Uppity Bill", the Robin (and owner of the garden) simply failed to cope with so many avian "intruders" and only really succeeded in throwing all of his toys out of the pram! He then finished-off by having a breath-takingly self-indulgent conniption fit....but all to no avail! Thelma and Louise as always, just appeared to enjoy looking down from above at all the interesting activity, dropping down now and then for a sedate and very superior nibble at the grain pile....you'd think they were Royalty or something!
"Tilt", yet another one-legged Chaffinch!
It was just then that I noticed one bird in particular on the snow and that it was moving very awkwardly. Well, guess what...it was yet another one-legged Chaffinch....a hen bird this time, but, like "Scraps", probably another victim of those stupid plastic mesh-bags used to hold bird-food, such as peanuts or fat-balls and which people hang up in their gardens without realizing how easy it is for birds to snag a claw and break a leg as they fly away....it's even possible for birds like Tits and Finches to lose their leg altogether as it literally snaps off!
I watched the little bird, who I immediately named "Tilt", with great interest and noticed how well she had learned to adapt. However, unlike "Scraps" she had learned to utilize her tail as a kind of prop, plus she used one wing as a crutch and this, together with her remaining leg provided a quite stable tri-pod effect! "Scraps" on the other hand, has overcome his disability by simply "balancing" on his one leg....though this does result in him being blown over onto his face in strong winds sometimes! Whatever works for you I suppose!
In this picture, "Tilt" demonstrates how she uses one wing as a kind of crutch to gain extra support. However, although this is ok on snow or even grass, repeated use of her wing in this way on hard ground will probably result in the primary feathers becoming worn down which will adversely affect her ability to fly!
There was however, another, perhaps more important difference between "Tilt" and "Scraps"...."Tilt" appeared to be very much a part of the large, thirty or so strong flock of Chaffinches that had chosen to fly into my garden from the surrounding fields, presumably because of the snow. She seemed to have no problems integrating with the other birds at all and they all appeared to see her as just another Chaffinch. "Scraps" on the other hand is a loner, not by choice, but because other Chaffinches make his life a misery (particularly the females)! He has therefore learned to cope entirely on his own!
This photograph shows more clearly how this little bird has learned to use her tail for additional support, but unfortunately, the same thing applies where the wearing down of important flight feathers is concerned....Worn primary feathers on one wing will basically result in her flying (if she can fly at all) with a list to one side (the way that faulty tracking can affect the steering on a car). Shorter tail feathers will affect steering in flight more directly and also her ability to compensate for the wing problem. Birds also use their tail feathers to slow down when coming in to land, so I suppose the worse case scenario would mean that "Tilt", once airborne, would find herself flying in ever-decreasing circles with a much reduced ability to stop and with only half her under-carriage to land on when she does finally hit the ground! Perhaps "Scraps" has got it right after all, even though he does fall flat on his face sometimes!
Does this indicate then, a difference in the responses of healthy birds to sick or injured males as opposed to females or is it a difference in responses of one flock as opposed to another? Would "Scraps" in fact, be more "acceptable" if he just happened to belong to "Tilt's" flock? Is there perhaps a difference in behaviour between birds that grow more dependent on handouts in someone's back garden as opposed to birds who do not? I just don't know, but it does help to reaffirm my beliefs that all birds of a single species are NOT the same and that both individually and socially there are many profound differences between them!
Remember, snow might be lots of fun for us and, at worst, a bit inconvenient, but not everyone is entirely taken with it. A bird like this little Blue Tit must eat its own weight in food every single day just to provide enough energy to get through the bitterly cold winter nights (I suffer the same problem!). In fact, many succumb altogether when the temperature drops by just a few degrees below zero. This is why it's so vitally important to feed the birds....especially now, when snow covers everything and life suddenly gets so much tougher for them! You don't have to go mad like me....just a handful of fatty scraps, biscuit crumbs, cold chips or half a slice of bread thrown on the lawn can make all the difference between life or death for some poor little mite! Mind you....definitely NO food in potentially harmful mesh-bags please!
It will be interesting to see if "Tilt" chooses to return to my garden once the snow has disappeared without the rest of her flock to take advantage of the easy pickings. After all, life must be very difficult for her out in the fields. I'm not so sure that "Scraps" would survive now without my help, but then maybe I'm under-estimating his tremendous inner-resolve and proven undauntable determination to survive!
Still Room for Improvement!
What on earth do you suppose they all talk about as they sit there looking like balls of old woolly socks with beaks....and is there some kind of "pecking" order do you think, that dictates who's stuck on the end of the line during the bitterly cold nights?
Having spent more than an hour creeping about trying to photograph a flock of 27 Twite just up the road, I've still only managed to get a handful of fuzzy shots, but at least they are a little bit better than the ones I took the other day (see the entry for 28th January).
Getting close to these guys is a really tough undertaking, but I promise to do better next time!
Twite are so twitchy. It was late afternoon, getting chilly and the light was fading. This lot had pretty much finished feeding for the day, but were continuing to fly in typically loose formations around and about the adjoining fields. They would settle occasionally in a long line on some telegraph wires I'd worked my way towards, where they would snuggle as close together as possible for security and warmth. There would always be at least two birds facing in the oppsite direction to all the others however, as "lookouts" and were probably making sure that the loony with the camera couldn't sneak up on them from behind! . Worse still, as most of the birds gradually settled down to roost, there was still not a single moment when all the Twite would tuck their chins into their chest feathers at the same time and shut their eyes for a quick snooze (a bit like flocks of wildfowl)! Extreme alertness to the possible approach of any danger is just one of the advantages to be gained from flocking behaviour I guess, but there's no doubt that these little fellas have got it all down to a thoroughly co-ordinated and highly effective art form! Fear not however, I'm determined to get even better results soon....I shall not be beaten by a bunch of overly-nervous finches....well, probably not!
Izzy Whizzy, Let's Get Busy
Well done to Sam and Joe who hung on in Suffolk for all the right reasons, but who have made themselves very unpopular with certain businessmen out that way! How does Sam track these things down? I could have been there for months and not noticed anything amiss in those areas!
Meanwhile, everyone else except me is also there and already the local BGs are declining to help....ignorance prevails (but we expect that) and the press are as stupid as ever of course! Interesting that two families in the area have already been stopped in their cars by police because they were wearing full NBC suits! The last time something like that happened was in Hereford when the bug got loose....a local couple and their eight year-old son were pulled over by police because they were noticed driving along the A49 in full NBC! The dad turned out to be an amateur short-band radio-hacker and fully paid-up A-list Survivalist and spent his evenings snooping in on military wavebands. He was let off with a Redcap caution, but they made him sign a legal SO and confiscated all his NBC (about £2000 worth!) in case he started worrying his neighbours!
Suffolk needn't be a problem provided everything is contained. Fear and panic are the bastard offspring of ignorance and supposition and that's where the press comes in....As long as they only report the facts and don't start making it up as they go along, then everything will be just fine and dandy.
DO NOT PANIC....BIRD-FLU, IN ITS PRESENT FORM, IS NOT A THREAT TO THE PUBLIC AT LARGE....NO MATTER HOW THE PRESS TRY TO SPIN IT!
IGNORE THE NEWSPAPERS, QUESTION THE POLITICIANS, BUT BELIEVE THE EXPERTS....FOR ONCE, I'M RIGHT BEHIND THE LATTER....AT LEAST FOR NOW!
THE BIRD-FLU VIRUS CAN ONLY MUTATE INTO A HUMAN-TO-HUMAN FORM AFTER SOMEONE HAS MANAGED TO CONTRACT THE H5N1 STRAIN OF THE VIRUS THROUGH DIRECT CONTACT WITH AN INFECTED BIRD! IT WOULD POSSIBLY ALSO HELP IF THEY WERE SUFFERING FROM ORDINARY FLU OR A COMMON COLD THEMSELVES AT THE SAME TIME!
THAT PERSON MUST THEN ALSO PROVE TO BE A SUITABLE HOST FOR THE VIRUS TO ACTUALLY MUTATE INTO A HUMAN-TO-HUMAN FORM AND THAT WOULD ONLY APPLY TO A VERY SMALL PERCENTAGE OF THE POPULATION!
STATISTICALLY, YOU ARE THREE TIMES MORE LIKELY TO WIN THE LOTTERY JACKPOT THAN BECOME INFECTED WITH H5N1 IN ITS PRESENT FORM!
IF YOU LIVE IN SUFFOLK, JUST CARRY ON WITH YOUR LIVES AS NORMAL, BUT TAKE A FEW SIMPLE, ELEMENTARY PRECAUTIONS, SUCH AS ENSURING THAT YOU DO NOT COME INTO CONTACT WITH ANY LIVE BIRDS OR THEIR FAECES DIRECTLY.
99.999% OF BIRDS IN YOUR NEIGHBOURHOOD ARE MORE LIKELY TO WIN THE LOTTERY THEMSELVES THAN CARRY THE H5N1 VIRUS!
DO NOT DO ANYTHING STUPID....SUCH AS HARMING ANY DOMESTIC OR WILD BIRDS YOURSELF! THINK IT THROUGH....THIS WOULD ONLY RESULT IN SOMEONE WHO MIGHT LATER COME INTO CONTACT WITH YOU OR YOUR NEAREST AND DEAREST HAVING TO DISPOSE OF THE CARCASS BEFORE IT WAS SCAVENGED BY OTHER, EQUALLY VULNERABLE SPECIES SUCH AS MINK, FOX OR RAT AND WHO ARE ALSO KNOWN TO BE SUSCEPTIBLE TO INFECTION THEMSELVES THROUGH DIRECT CONTACT WITH THE INTESTINES AND/OR FAECES OF DEAD INFECTED BIRDS!
SIX OF THE UKNR ARE CURRENTLY SCOURING THE FIELDS, WOODS, WATERWAYS AND COASTAL AREAS OF SUFFOLK AND THE NORTH COAST OF NORFOLK FOR FURTHER SIGNS OF THE INFECTION. THEY ARE THE BEST OF THE BEST AT THIS, BUT I KNOW THAT EACH IS ALSO PREPARED TO EAT HIS HAT IF HE FINDS SO MUCH AS A SNOTTY TISSUE!
Bird Farms....I hate bl**dy bird farms! All that avian misery just so Mr and Mrs Dipstick can have their Christmas lunch just like Momma used to do....and don't get me started on battery hens!
I've been "veggy" for forty-seven years now, since back before it got all trendy not to eat meat....back to a time when you had to come from planet Mars to even think about not eating it! No M&S vegetarian ready-meals back then or green label thingys on packaging. "Pulses" were things that your doctor took and people thought that "pasta" was probably an Italian expletive!
I even got through six years in the military without eating meat....and I didn't get so much as a medal for it or anything! Those six years by the way, also included a four week "Sod-You" ("Survive or Die you Useless Tossers") holiday for four (no mod-cons) on some God-forsaken, remote, previously uncharted Outer Hebridean island, where the most appetizing things on the five-star menu were "worm and beetle omelette" and lightly toasted "gull gizzard and rabbit cahone hotpot"! Tempting though the other dishes obviously were, I stuck to my own version of "kelp surprise"....though usually without the kelp (that was the surprise)....unless of course, we'd had a good two or three day lashing from a helpful storm-force eleven coming in from the Arctic Circle to tear some up from the sea-bed!
We lost nearly five stone between us (almost two from me!) during those four weeks (not bad considering that there wasn't an ounce of fat on any of us to begin with)! There must be a Dieting DVD opportunity in there somewhere....or maybe a "Celebrity Shipwrecked" type of reality TV show where as many as possible of our more "testing" celebs could be abandoned completely to fend for themselves on a similar, very remote and candid camera-infested Scottish island for a few weeks....a sort of cross between "Lord of the Flies", "Celebrity Fat Camp", "Nature Watch" and "Lost"! No stupid tasks or challenges, just the slow and eminently satisfying emaciation of over-inflated egos! Avuncular and level-headed Ray Mears could host the show, while ex-SAS survival experts Chris McNab and Lofty Whitehouse could offer remote technical "illumination" from a nice cosy studio somewhere in London. Meanwhile, much-beloved Wildlife presenter and charismatic birder to the people, Bill Oddie, could provide the glamour from a specially adapted hide over-looking the island....I'd certainly watch it!
Anyhoo, apart from the fact that I look absolutely nothing like any stereo-typical vegetarian you've ever seen, I stopped announcing that I'm a veggy years ago, or at least once vegetarianism had become popular. Big Business had suddenly realized that around three to five million Brits with veggy tendencies represented money in the bank and began to cater for them big-time in the shops!
However, I find that many people who happen to find themselves dining alongside me in a host of situations feel very uncomfortable (even today) about my previously undisclosed attitudes concerning the eating of meat or fish. Some choose to believe that I must be sitting in judgement of them and they can get quite defensive. What people choose to eat is their business....both my kids eat meat for example and always have (though I put my foot down about purchasing "factory processed" meat or letting them use fast-food burger chains!). People need to make their own choices and come to their own decisions, provided that those decisions are born out of informed understanding rather than just plain ignorance or tradition for tradition's sake!
Hard to believe it now (I know my children certainly don't), but there was nothing short of complete incredulity and widespread, open hostility towards such things as vegetarianism in the 1950s and 60s, even when it involved (perhaps especially when it involved) an over-idealistic twelve year-old who simply refused to eat his free school dinners (remember, the last vestiges of war-time rationing had only finally disappeared a few years before). I would be made to sit and stare at my uneaten cottage pie or spam-and-mash mush through my entire lunch-break until I ate it....cold if necessary....and had to be grateful for it! I always refused to touch it however, and subsequently received one whack across the palm of each hand (on at least two occasions) from headmaster "Bert" Weedon and his ever-faithful "Mr.Whippy" (see "Slices" www.wildliferanger.co.uk)! Then there were the letters to my parents about my un-natural behaviour and the referrals....firstly to the school nurse and then the schools inspectorate (or schools "expectorant" as my Dad preferred to call them)....Oh well,....I've never been seen as "normal" by anyone really, but that's another story!
There's a parent at my daughter's swimming club who has said to me on a number of occasions that she'd love to be vegetarian....if she had the time. Alas however, it's all just too much hassle. She's a very busy woman you see and it would all be a lot of trouble! Then she looks at me, expecting sympathy for her plight....I just think of "Kelp Surprise" and "Mr Whippy"...."Kelp Surprise" and "Mr Whippy"!
Alright on the Twite
Twite in the trees surrounding the fields just across from my house. I'll try to get much closer if I can this week, for some better images....these couldn't really be much worse, but because they are such nervous birds and there are so many pairs of eyes keeping a look-out at any one time, Twite are extremely difficult to approach!
They're late this year, but I'm pleased to see that the Twite have returned to the trees and fields behind my house. It's a loose flock of thirty or so birds with what looks to me like a few Linnets stirred in for good measure....I've seen the odd Yellowhammer latching on to flocks of Twite in the past (and have even photographed them doing it) and the occasional Redwing will also attach itself to a flock of Carduelis flavirostris for an hour or two, but I don't remember seeing Twite and Linnet mixing in flocks before! This lot however, have been together since the Twite arrived on 23rd January!
Is It Just Me?
I've mentioned before in this diary about how I was many miles from home in some town park or other, minding my own business, pottering about around the water margins of a small lake, when I suddenly became aware of a somewhat gargantuan, shaven-headed, tattoo be-decked individual who was allowing his equally large, off-the-lead and very aggressive-looking dog to rampage about all over the place! Its behaviour was extremely intimidating for other park users, particularly dog-owners, as it ran repeatedly, right up to their own animals, constantly growling and barking! The man did nothing to control the aberrant hound except shout the occasional expletive as it ran too far away, even for him!
I approached the man and asked him politely if he wouldn't mind retstraining his dog as it appeared to be causing some upset and pointed out that there were also a number of small children in the park who might be at risk.
The man's instant response was one of extreme aggression and he threatened to perform physical violence upon my beloved person! He also threatened to set his dog on me if I didn't go away (except that said dog was by now some distance off, barking at a worried-looking young mum who had her own dog on a lead and a child in a push-chair)!
At this point I decided that discretion was the better part of valour and went to walk away from the man, announcing that I would go to the aid of the young mum. However, once my back was turned, the man suddenly attacked me! I subdued the man, the police were called and two witnesses very kindly gave statements on my behalf!
Several weeks later, I'm called upon, along with the two witnesses, to give evidence against the man in court. He is found guilty, fined £50, ordered to pay £80 costs (in instalments), instructed to keep his dog on a lead at all times when out of doors and was then bound-over to keep the peace.
However, having brought the case against the man themselves, the police were subsequently instructed to issue me with a "caution" because I apparently used, in the eyes of the court, "excessive, deliberate and calculated force" to restrain the man....by breaking four of his fingers....too bl**dy right it was deliberate! The guy was a maniac! Funny though, I thought that I only broke the little finger on his right hand!?!
His defence had rested upon what he claimed was a misunderstanding....that, in fact, his dog had accidentally "slipped" its leash and that he was in the process of trying to recapture it when some crazy bloke (me) "stuck his nose in your 'onnor" and launched an unprovoked attack on him! Fortunately, the witnesses saw it differently!
According to him however, he suffered more than four weeks loss of earnings because of it (except that he's supposed to be unemployed, hence the instalments) and that both he and the dog had been very heavily traumatized by the whole experience....several visits to both his GP and the vet being necessary (the dog as well probably)! The poor man apparently hasn't slept since the incident and wakes up in a cold sweat every night (presumably from the sleep he isn't having)!
"Excessive force" though? Breaking his neck would be what I'd call excessive force....and yes, the thought did cross my mind at the time! In fact, I think I showed quite considerable restraint under the circumstances!
Unfortunately however, the caution has provided our friend with a far more realistic opportunity to bleat his case to a firm of "no-win-no-fee" solicitors who might then try to bring a case of assault against me which, I'm reliably informed, is quite possible! It could also be that, given the worst case scenario, I could even go to prison (extremely unlikely in a rational judicial climate you might argue....so almost a certainty these days then)! I think that this could be another job for "Super-Brief", the Boss's city lawyer!
Meanwhile this week, a convicted paedophile escapes a prison sentence, but a phone-tapper goes to jail for four months....Is it just me or has the world gone completely mad?
1....I really should be down in Devon helping out with the oil-slicked seabirds, perhaps getting into some of the more inaccessible places to retrieve them, but not this week. Instead I've got to give evidence in court....two separate courts, in two different counties....Sugar!
2....As an addendum to the piece on celebrities I wrote on the 15th January....I've had a staggering four e-mails from people wanting to know who the other seventeen individuals are that I consider to be "A-list" celebrities and do I include so-and-so and such-and-such?
Well, I don't entirely understand why anyone else should give a flying fish about what I think, but here are ten more anyway (I'll keep you guessing about the other seven)....
John F Kennedy
Mother Teresa of Calcutta
The Prophet Muhammad
Like the ones below, these are names that most people might consider to be such obvious choices that they are virtually cliches, but then, that's exactly what I would consider to be perhaps the most important criterion for entry onto my particular list of all-time "True Celebtrities". Others might feel that they are so obvious that they'd prefer to choose less likely or more obscure movers and shakers just to be a bit different, but doesn't that rather defeat the object?
Ms. Goody et al take note....
One winter's evening, a long, long time ago, a young black man called Mr. Clay, ignored a sign on the front door of a restaurant in Washington DC that said "No Blacks or Coloreds Allowed!" and sat down at a table to be served. The management not only refused to serve him, but pointed to the sign and asked him to leave the premises immediately!
An outraged, and thoroughly incredulous Mr Clay ran across the busy road to a bridge spanning the mighty Potomac River where he reached into his jacket pocket and pulled out a hefty-looking gold medal. He stared at the object held tightly in his trembling fingers for a long time before suddenly throwing it as far as he could, out across the freezing water where it disappeared forever into the inky blackness! For the first and last time Mr. Clay wept openly in public!
Since that day, many have tried to find the medal, but it remains, perhaps meaningfully, lost to the world!
A few years later, Mr Clay re-invented himself by turning to Islam and changing his name to Mohammed Ali. By the year 2000, he had been overwhelmingly voted the most outstanding sports personality of the 20th century and finally got to have his sit-down meal at the notorious restaurant down by the river....by special invitation. Meanwhile, hundreds of TV journalists and press photographers jostled and elbowed each other outside the building to catch a glimpse of the man most people believe to be the greatest sportsman in history!
In an interview around that time, Mohammed Ali was asked if he ever regretted throwing his medal into the Potomac....
"What is the point of winning an Olympic medal in the name of your country in the first place" he replied, "let alone keeping it, if the laws of that country allow and even encourage others to treat you as a second-class citizen because of the colour of your skin?".
The interviewer went on to argue that things had surely improved....hadn't they and that, like the infamous sign on the restaurant door, the ignorance had disappeared....hadn't it?
Mohamed Ali stared at the questioner for a moment....
"Ignorance is still out there" he said finally, "but it is wrong to use ignorance as an excuse for prejudice....it was then, is now and always will be the only reason for it!"
(Now You See Them, Now You Don't)
Cotswold Water Park late this afternoon.
I would like to apologise to the two very knowledgeable gentlemen I chatted to at Cotswold Water Park this afternoon. They were birders based in Swindon and were enjoying (until they met me) a pleasant afternoon adding a few new species to their annual list for 2007. They'd asked me if I'd seen anything interesting bird-wise while I'd been there, but I hadn't really....apart from a pair of Snipe hunkered down in scrubby grass near the disused, but currently flooded canal.
I'd only spotted them myself by chance when one of the birds stretched one wing as I was looking in that general direction. I told the gents about the Snipe, but we failed miserably to spot them again! They are so brilliantly camouflaged (the birds that is, not the birders!) that it's pretty much like looking for....er....Snipe....hiding in a field of scrubby grass!
Snipe are rarely easy to see and the three shown in this photograph, taken a while ago, were no exception.
It always looks as though I'm making it up when that sort of thing happens. I even went back later on to have another look, but still couldn't see them!....Anyhoo, the birders were fine about it, despite the fact that I also gave them details of my websites!
I do hope that they eventually got to see the Great Northern Diver currently inhabiting one of the other lakes, as I think that they were hoping to add it to their list. Meanwhile, they might be interested to know that I shall be off to see and hopefully photograph the Bittern they told me about early next week....if it's still there....which it probably wont be! I checked my notebooks and the last time I saw a Bittern was in January 1997, exactly ten years ago....so maybe that's a good sign!
I've mentioned before that lots of people stop to talk to me when I'm out and about doing ranger stuff. They usually just want to know who I am and what I'm doing (or is that just the police?). Today was no exception and I must have had at least a dozen conversations with various groups and individuals.
Many tourists like to visit the Cotswolds from all over the world....even in January. I very often find myself surrounded by groups of camera-wielding Japanese ladies and gentlemen for example, delighted to have discovered an Englishman who will attempt to converse in their native tongue....Nor do they ever tire of hearing that the "pen of my aunt is in the garden" and that "the next train to Kyoto will be on Tuesday"!
I stopped off in Bourton-on-the Water on the way home this afternoon and spent an hour poking around the network of small lakes and ponds situated on the edge of the village before following the River Windrush back to the chip shop. On the way, a small party of American visitors stopped me for a few moments. They were all very friendly and happy to chat and I was introduced to a lady who was keen to reveal that her son had recently qualified for entry into a US Naval training college in, I think she said, California. She was obviously very proud of him and so she should be. However. despite the abundant pride in the tone of her voice and her friendly smile, something in her eyes betrayed a mother's concern for her child (something I've seen many times before). Her boy had become a man, but had chosen a profession that could place him in mortal danger and she was worried as only a mum can be.
For that lady I shall say this....Your son has made his decision, a very good one in my opinion and my guess is that you are someone who has the inner resolve and strength of character to support that decision in every possible way. It just so happens that he has embarked upon a career in one of the best equipped and most professional organizations of modern times. The US Navy is world-renowned for taking special care of its people and I know that they will take care of your son. They will help him to grow and develop as both a man and a human being. He will learn invaluable new leadership and decision-making skills. He will command respect amongst his shipmates (provided they don't read this) and become a true "professional" in ways that are not possible in more ordinary walks of life. He will make friends and encounter comrades who he will come to trust with his very life and he will learn to reciprocate that trust....with interest!
Yes, there may well be times in such an unstable and unpredictable world as ours when he does face danger....it would be wrong to deny it (at least for as long as the politicians continue to run the asylum), but hard work and tough training regimes plus the undeniable quality of those who will lead him will always raise the odds enormously in his favour. I wont say don't worry, that would be both pointless and wrong, but I shall say this, statistically at least, your son would be in far greater danger if he was driving a New York cab, policing the streets of L.A. or serving behind the counter in your local K-Mart!
Your son, even though I'm sure that he will deny it, is one of a rare and special breed....a person prepared to put his money where his mouth is in his willingness to defend, with absolute conviction, his beliefs, his country and everything he holds most dear.
Finally, I shall say that for you at least, he has always been very special....as your son, but soon he will be special for the whole world to see! Believe me....he WILL shine!
I apologise for sounding like a poor man's JFK, but I know that your son will be in good hands and I wish him all the luck in the world!
Bullying on TV? Surely Not!
Have I been hearing correctly? Could it possibly be that, in this day and age and on our beloved TV screens no less, there really is a blatant case of racist bullying?
Typical British mutant-type ugloids of questionable IQ are apparently being totally intimidated by some demure, well-educated, talented, wealthy, Asian, raven-haired beauty of inversely proportional intelligence who, unbelievably it seems, insists on talking in sentences composed entirely of intelligible, multi-syllabic words with no hint of an expletive! Crikey, no wonder said ugloids feel so intimidated....they wont understand a bl**dy word she's saying! That's not right is it? I'm not surprised that thousands of people are complaining!
"Wife, get me parchment, ink and quill....I'm writing to our MP!....er....who is our MP exactly? Who?....What d'you mean we haven't had an election for years so he hasn't called round!....It's a HE is it?"
I have just received an e-mail from Mrs. R who is concerned that I have not been keeping either her (or my other reader) fully up to date with regard to the progress of some of the bird "characters" who frequent my garden. She was particularly worried about "Scraps", the little one-legged male Chaffinch who is featured on the "home page" of my other website www.wildliferanger.co.uk and she was wondering if he's still around.
Well, Mrs. R, Scraps is doing really well and has completely mastered a disability that, by rights, should have killed him! He must be the bird-world equivalent of Douglas Bader! Scraps is in and out of my garden all day, every day and has grown far too dependent on handouts from me. In fact I have to make sure that someone puts food out for him when I'm away! I don't think he'd actually starve, but he is more vulnerable than other Chaffinches. Scraps isn't the biggest Spink on the block either (compare him with the Chaffinch pictured on the "Brown page" of this site) and he tends to get picked on for two reasons....his obvious disability and his diminutive size. I'm sure that this is why he doesn't "flock" with other Chaffinches....he's always being chased away, mostly by the hen birds oddly enough....though it's not for the want of him trying to join in!
Meanwhile, I took the above picture of him this morning, just for you, while the sun was out and after he'd finally finished stuffing his face with the sunflower hearts I always put on his special tray. In fact, on days when I might be a little bit late putting out food for him, he's sometimes cheeky enough to actually perch for ages, albeit with a bit of a wobble, on the edge of the empty tray as if to say "Oi, you big lummox, where's my sunflower hearts?".
Thelma and Louise enjoy a snooze (above left) on a very hot summer's day in July 2006 in the shade of the tall trees at the end of the garden. Seven months later, in February 2007 (above right), they are still spending most of the day together in the same tree, on exactly the same branch! I dread to think what one will do if anything untoward happens to the other....They're virtually inseperable!
You'll also be pleased to hear that Collared Doves, Thelma and Louise (now not quite the only gays in the village by all accounts!) remain ensconced in the tall trees at the end of the garden where they will sit side by side for ages, just watching the world go by. Scores and scores of birds visit my garden every day and, apart from a readily available supply of food, this seems to be a major attraction for the this odd pair of lovely lovie-dovies!
"It's ok Ma, I'm King of the World!" James Cagney, he may not be (above left), but there's no doubt that "DT" really does think he's something special ! Meanwhile (above right) , only two of his offspring survived to fledge during the summer of 2006. They ate anything and everything I put out for them plus all the stuff that DT and his missus found time to shove down their throats....and they just kept getting bigger and bigger and bigger! Within a week of taking this picture however, DT had finally had enough and chased them from the garden....and that was that....mind you, I bet he's not stuck paying university fees!
The irascible Turdus merula, "DT" is fit and well and, like Uppity-Bill the belligerent Robin, still thinks that not only is he the ruler of the world, but that the big, ugly guy from inside the house thingy is there solely to provide an endless supply of tasty mealworms! Although DT wont actually come into the house itself like Uppity-Bill often will, he does occasionally sit on the patio bench to stare at me through the French windows until I get him a handful of his favourites wrigglies! To his credit, DT has also been able to maintain a fairly stable relationship with his somewhat twitchy partner and the pair successfully managed to raise two enormous youngsters in a nest behind the top shed last summer!
"Uppity Bill" the belligerent Robin (above left) and the slightly less tame, but equally recalcitrant, "Mrs Uppity Bill" (above right)!
Unfortunately, I haven't seen "Columbo", the White Dove in the garden since around the end of October and I fear the worst! I saw two attempts by the local hen Sparrow-hawk to take him during the summer, but he was just quick enough to escape on those occasions. Being such a pure white colour also brought him to the attention of the local cat population! I guess that a solitary White Dove is always going to have the odds stacked against it!
Yet Another Royal Marine Killed in Action!
Matthew Ford of 45 (four five) Cdo was tragically killed in action today. That's two good men in three days and I really feel for their families!
It must be pretty desperate out there in those morale-sapping war zones because these guys are extremely good at what they do, especially when it comes to keeping each other alive!
I just don't think that the Great British Public has the remotest clue as to what's really going on in either Iraq or Afghanistan! It's one thing to have most of the folks back home supporting your every move, as they did with the Falklands War and it's another to have them totally against you (as experienced by the Americans in Vietnam), but it must be hugely deflating to realize that the general public neither understands what you're going through or even appears to care....it's totally macabre!
Before I launch into one of my ridiculously over-long witterings that absolutely no-body ever reads, I would just like to draw attention to the complete moron this week who apparently intends to catch and eat a wild Swan as some sort of protest against all things "Royal"!
Apart from the fact that Swans enjoy a very complex, family-orientated system of social interaction and that the death of a single member of that group adversely affects all the others, could someone please tell me why it is that people who are apparently so desperate to make some sort of exaggerated protest against something they feel very strongly about, are always so hung-up on the belief that they'll get loads of extra publicity points simply by inflicting pain, misery or death on another living creature? How are they ever able to justify its sacrifice in the name of their "cause"? The animal itself doesn't understand what's going on or why it has to die! It also seems very strange that such people are so rarely prepared to inflict any pain, misery or death upon themselves instead....a far more noble gesture in my opinion! I tend to have great sympathy for the desperate resolve and hard-core determination of most hunger-strikers for example, even if I don't agree with their politics!
Surely, this idiot must realize that he'd get a far more positive and sympathetic reaction from the British public if he pulled off a stunt like throwing himself naked onto the pointy railings at Buckingham Palace from the top of a double-decker bus with a Union flag stuck up his jaxy or something....plus we'd all get a good laugh as well!
Basically I don't like extremists, no matter what their "cause" happens to be! That also includes extreme animal rights activists....a bunch of overly self-indulgent kids who don't know s**t from sugar when it comes to really "understanding" pain and injustice....the kind you tend to find in any of the world's more unforgiving crap-holes! Violent-minded extremists get in our way and prevent us doing our job properly....the way it should be done....within the confines of the Law....and, if you think the Law sucks, then at least have the strength of character and personal resolve to try changing it from the inside-out instead of just throwing rocks at it!
I don't like people who bully, threaten and intimidate others! I spent too many years watching it being done by experts on all sides in places like Northern Ireland to ever accept it from total amateurs!
Hunting with hounds is a good case in point. If we were ever asked to monitor the activities of a Hunt by the local police, we wouldn't like doing it, but we'd probably have to. However, I can assure you that you can do far more damage hidden in a tree-line with a long-lens camera from 200 metres and the due process of law to back you up than any mob of masked anti-hunt thugs throwing paint, darts and bleach at horses and riders could ever achieve during a pointless debacle between themselves and the pro-hunt brigade....and before thou doth protest too much, I've actually seen for myself the dart and bleach-throwing antics being carried out by thugs with more double-standards than brain cells while another ranger felt obliged to finally "tap" a guy carrying a paint-stripper-type blow-torch before he hurt himself or, more importantly, the terrified horse he was pointing it at! It all gets so unnecessarily ugly, but it's still not comparable to a full-blown Belfast sectarian riot....you tend to remember those for the rest of your life!
Anyhoo, before I go completely off on one....
Up Before the Beak!
Well....not me personally, but I do have to give evidence in court soon in two work-related cases in two different counties....luckily not on the same day! Funny though, I've only had one threatening letter this time....anonymous of course and consisting of a mere thirty-one words altogether....hardly worth bothering really! However, what it lacked in length, it more than made up for with its eleven expletives, nine spelling mistakes and three changes of tense....and I'd say that that in itself, is a quite commendable achievement!
I don't like this side of the job, but it's very often my photographs that form the back-bone of the prosecution evidence!" Sometimes I've taken pictures from as far away as two or even three hundred metres and the defence council are usually confident that the quality of the images will be negligible and prove totally inconclusive....until they see them! However, when it comes to photographing Tits for example, I find that there are basically two types....there are the little feathery hyper-active jobbies, such as Parus caeruleus, that flit about in the bushes and are really difficult to get any decent pictures of at all....and then there's the increasingly common Parus idioticus....a slow-witted, slow-moving, two-legged perpetrator of evil deeds in the country-side who is all too easy to photograph (with usually excellent results) even from three-hundred metres!
I was asked recently, why I don't try photographing celebrities instead of "wasting" all my time photographing "stupid birds"....and maybe make some money on the side. Well, first of all, you'd have to show me a celebrity (any celebrity) who was one tenth as beautiful or as interesting as even the most ordinary common-or-garden bird and then you'd have to go on to convince me that tracking down and snapping even the most reclusive of celebrities was a fraction as difficult or subsequently rewarding as photographing such rare species of bird as, for example, Cirl Buntings or Cattle Egrets!
Wildlife photography in general and bird photography in particular will always be infinitely more satisfying and challenging to me than the thought of clicking away at so-called celebrities and feeding into their egos as though you're some kind of media-driven saline drip! People are far too predictable in their habits, even the rich and the famous. Birds on the other hand, are rarely at all predictable and I shall always prefer the constant frustrations of yet another unsuccessful day out in the cold, the mud and the wet trying to get a half-decent shot of a Bullfinch (my nemesis!) or a Chough (surely a mythical bird!) than the "triumph" of getting that "perfect" shot of Posh and Becks doing their shopping in Oxford Street....even though I could probably sell such an image on for thousands of pounds!
My answer didn't really satisfy the person who'd raised the subject in the first place however and he went on to demand that I tell him who I would personally class as being a "true celebrity". I gave him a few names off the top of my head, but went on to think about it much more carefully at home later on. After sitting down for nearly an hour with a note-pad and pencil, I'd only come up with twenty-seven "A-list" names....and they were mostly of dead people!
For me, a "true celebrity" must, first and foremost, be (or have been) a genuinely and uniquely talented individual in their genre with an almost un-nerving aura of inescapable "presence" about them. They will probably have a lifetime of outstanding achievement to their credit and possess a blatantly obvious, but, at times, unfathomable "star-qualitiness" that invariably sets them apart from the rest of the common herd! Such pre-requisites of course, immediately disqualify 99.9% of the 650 or so "celebrities" (apparently) currently participating in one type of reality TV show or another!
I could go on about it, but I'm sure you get my drift. Here then, are just ten of those twenty-seven names. They're not in any particular order and any others you might think ought to be there are probably amongst the other seventeen on the list....
(I think it's actually MLK Day in the USA today!)
A mixed bag of all too obvious choices I hear you say....the ones, perhaps, that the vast majority of ordinary, common people like me would pick! Well, we would wouldn't we....but isn't that what really makes Elvis et al the 24 Karat "true celebrities" that they always have been?
Even though most of the people on my list have passed away, their glittering careers and perceived inspirational qualities continue to shine like a beacon for every common man and woman to behold. Moreover, I also believe that they continue to serve their "public" to varying degrees by continuing to bring a greater sense of fulfilment to many ordinary lives. Perhaps it's even possible that their own failings as human beings or the desperate misfortunes that some of them also endured might help to guide and inspire even those celebrity wannabes out there who, in so desperately seeking the public eye, are willing to pursue their dream at almost any cost to themselves!
Sadly however, the notion of "celebrity" has been reduced to little more than a hyper-inflated media currency whose value continues to be diluted in a world thirsty for instant fame and mega-buck success! Celebrity is now, more than ever, a quantifiable resource designed to benefit the media's movers and shakers!
True "Star" quality will always shine through of course, but it's also about how such quality is used, abused and manipulated by the money junkies. I do find myself wondering though, just who my children will grow up to consider to be "true celebrities" There seems to be less and less quality programming on TV of late....the kind that created the Erics and the Tommys and the Spikes. "Celebrity" seems to have acquired a separate meaning in its own right, almost as though it has become a "career" in itself. People don't seem to be famous for their acting, their musicianship or their contribution to defining moments in world history as much as they used to any more....
"What do you do for a living?" was a question directed at a posturing young man on TV a couple of nights ago.
"I'm a professional celebrity" came the reply.
"What are you famous for?" continued the interviewer.
"I've been on TV 107 times!"
"All sorts....game-shows, kids TV....this....obviously!" He giggles to camera....107 appearances and already a pro....sorry....celebrity!
That made me realize, all of a sudden, that the actual perception of what celebrity is must be changing quite rapidly, at least amongst young people (anyone under 25?) and that even the idea of celebrity itself has fallen victim to a world in which young people are becoming more and more obsessed with the fast and the disposable....fast food, disposable relationships.... fast cars, disposable income, ....fast life-styles, and now....disposable celebrity!
Could it be that it wont matter if we don't remember a Nicky or a Pete or a Chantelle a year from now, just so long as another one comes along in a minute?
Perhaps Simon Cowell summed it all up this week when he claimed that a young Bob Dylan would never have been good enough to "make it" through the auditions of the "X Factor", let alone get into the finals....and he's probably right if you think about it! I believe that such a thing is psychologically termed a "singular uncontextualization", ie: a statement borne out of opinion rather than hard evidence....a bit like my website diaries!
Here's another one....Like him or not, Bob Dylan was and always will be a hugely "creative" force in the world of music, if not the world of "celebrity" as well. Bob Dylan almost single-handedly turned the popular perception of lyric-based music on its head for an entire generation back in the 1960s and much of what followed in popular music rode on the enormous tidal wave created by just one man, his battered six-string guitar, reedy harmonica-playing and an unprecedented ability as a word-smith! After all, if it wasn't some sort of mystical "star-quality" oozing out of the man, how else could someone with a voice like a tin full of pebbles rolling down a tarmac drive two blocks away have become such a driving and influential force in, not only popular music, but popular culture generally?
A more relevant question to ask perhaps, would be just how many of the current or past batches of X Factor contestants (how many of them do you remember?) could have achieved even a fraction of what Dylan accomplished back then or, more significantly, how many of them will go on to do something of equal significance in years to come? Like I say, the money junkies do most of the moving and the shaking now, more than ever and not the celebrities themselves! Power and control....Control and power!
Bob Dylan has rarely needed to sing other people's songs commercially, but has been emulated by hundreds, maybe thousands of Bob Dylan wannabes across the globe. The very best of singers from every genre have sung his songs on their own and on Dylan tribute albums alike and I'm sure that they will continue to do so!
I agree with you Mr. Cowell, Dylan definitely would NOT have "made it" on the X Factor, but I'd go on to argue that, possibly, neither would John Lennon or Paul McCartney, or Bruce Springsteen or Robert Plant or Edith Piaf or the Gallagher brothers or even Jimi Hendrix....Janis Joplin would probably have fallen miserably at the first hurdle as would Nick Drake or a young David Bowie or Jack Bruce. Johnny Rotten, Alice Cooper, Billy Idol and Kurt Cobain would never have been allowed in the bloody building to do an audition in the first place! Do you understand what I'm trying to say?
I believe that the true quality of our greatest ever celebrities is measured, not just by their ability to WOW an audience on the night or by how many people recognize them in Tescos or by how high up the book-charts their auto-biography goes by the time they're 21. For me, it's the extent to which their lives, however short, are able to "resonate" down the years and by how much their "spirit" lives on and on in the hearts of their families, friends, adoring fans and countless admirers....and I'd say that's a pretty tall order for the instant-mix, ready-to-go, minimum shelf-life, throw-away "celebrities" of today!
Royal Marine Dies in the Middle East!
Thomas Curry RM....Another brave and honest man lost in a desperate cause!
I apologize for being slightly remiss in replying to some of the e-mails I've been getting recently....most of them concern aspects of this site specifically or about rangering in general....one or two are about me! Here then, are a few replies (please note, I've put the initials or part of the name of the person asking the question first, followed by my reply. Sadly however, I can't be fished to type out the question as well, so anyone else reading this will have to work it out for themselves....
Robert B.......Yes, the banner looks just fine and I hope I've done yours ok as well. Thank-you and happy birding!
Rebecca J.......No, definitely not! Johnny Kingdom is not only ten times better looking than me, but has a lorry-load more personality. I tend to keep mine in a very, very small box behind the sofa! Mr. Kingdom's effervescent enthusiasm and his "what the heck's going to happen next?" ad hoc, home-video presentation style is a breath of fresh air in the world of TV wildlife programming....and the TV camera seems to love him too....when it can keep up with him that is!
H T.......I really don't have a clue, unless by smell maybe!
G T G.......Any military surplus-type shop will have them and there's probably a shop near you. If not, you could try the internet. We've used all the following sites over the years....Silverman's, Surplus and Outdoors, Kit Pongo and the Hogman, Whipperly's, Militarykit.com, BCB International and SurvivalAids (the latter two are more for professional outfits, security forces and the military, but they might be happy for you to set up an account....after all, they need to turn a profit just like anyone else! Another site called RangerSurplus.com is quite good value.
Max.......Sorry Max, none of us in UKNR actually like guns and wont offer any advice on purchasing them. I shall say this though....We were all trained to think of firearms as "weapons" and were never allowed to call them "guns"....that's a civilian term shared with toy manufacturers. Firearm safety (an oxymoron if ever there was one!) requires that anyone handling such things quickly develops a very special type of mindset, one that can only be born out of intensive training, total self-discipline and constant mindfulness of all potential hazards....and if you think that's all a bit over-the-top then pause to consider the following statistics....
About 11% of British households apparently have a firearm of some kind or other (predominantly air rifles and shotguns, but also a sprinkling of semi-automatic pistols), but few civilians outside of "gun clubs" receive any formal training whatsoever concerning the maintenance and/or use of such guns (weapons). However, 100% of British military servicemen and women are issued with what can only be described as "serious" firearms, for which they receive intensive, comprehensive and on-going instructional-type training. It's also a fact that of all the thousands of serious or fatal injuries resulting from "accidents" with firearms during the last ten years, less than 2% have involved either currently serving or former military personnel!
Basically Max, my only advice would be don't bother buying a firearm at all, but if you feel that you must, then make sure that you join a reputable gun club where fully qualified experts will insist that you familiarize yourself with all aspects of firearm ownership and usage. By the way, you might also be interested to know that over in the USA the handgun has now officially taken over from the big, powerful car as the primary link between a man's self-perceived sexual inadequacy and the need to purchase something that will subconsciously compensate for it....this is also the reason, according to the American Institute of Motor Manufacturers, that the market for "small, fast" sports cars has declined so drastically in recent years (true)!
Kelly T.......In anticipation (following on from the previous answer) and before you bother asking....Just average!
Gaffa.......No, not for years!
Elaine R.......He's married!
S R L.......I'll e-mail a copy to you.
Adrian T.......Try vaseline to loosen it or use epoxy resin to keep it there permanently!
Anon.......What you choose to believe about Big-Cats Mr/Ms Anon is fine by me. It's all pretty academic anyway, but as far as using "proper professionals" to do the job of finding them is concerned, there are already a number of precedents....including the troop of Royal Marines complete with specialist Marine recce-tracker back in 1983, who were employed, together with half the Cornish constabulary, to comb Bodmin Moor, section by re-section, in a concerted and much publicised effort to find the infamous "Beast of Bodmin", but with no luck to speak of....although the marine tracker did return to search by himself at a later date and, after several weeks, became convinced that an indeterminable number of Big-Cats actually were at large on the Moor!
More recently, about four years ago, a Canadian-born tracker/wilderness specialist came to the Cotswolds and teamed up with a British Big-Cat expert in an effort to prove conclusively, one way or the other, that Big-Cats were roaming the Cotswolds....There had been a large number of sightings around that time and most were reported in the local newspapers (although there appeared to have been as many different kinds of cat as there were sightings)!
The Canadian and Brit duo arrived, complete with TV film crews, producers and assorted hangers-on and proceeded to parade across the countryside like some sort of Chipperfield's Circus performer's grand day out! They even parked a huge mobile trailer-canteen wherever they went and two American-type RVs. They brought miscellaneous technical support vehicles and some sort of props/costume van to boot! They had virtually no chance of finding or seeing so much as a Grey Squirrel's nuts let alone spotting any kind of big feline! Although, at one point, they did actually pass to within about two hundred metres of a lair and I'm willing to bet that the owner was watching them with even more bemused interest than us!
How do I know all this? Well, Happy Sam and I followed them wherever they went and watched them scratching about for clues, talking to locals, doing bits and pieces to camera and leaving different sorts of bait (always taken by foxes) in front of various laser night-vision and infra-red auto-trigger cameras at dusk each evening before returning to the comfort of their RVs. This went on for four truly uneventful days. Oddly though, it was the junior go-fers who were sent to check the cameras at dawn (the time you are actually most likely to see a Big-Cat as it returns to its lair/den after a night on the town)! The circus didn't see us either by the way! The programme was aired months later and made to look as though our two intrepid trackers had been roughing it alone in the wilds for weeks and had managed to come across all kinds of intriguing bits and pieces, but thankfully, their investigations proved inconclusive!
Pish-posh as Monty Burns would say!
If you actually want to "see" a Big Cat for yourself before you are willing to believe in them Mr/Ms Anon, then you are very wise and that's exactly what I would say, but to see one by design, you would have to be prepared to sit very, very still in something like an old manure heap (to help disguise your scent) in all weathers with good night-vision equipment in the most likely place you can think of to see one for as long as it takes....and that could be for weeks! Urinating on selective tree trunks every day for a month or two in advance across your target area might also go some way towards getting the animal to start taking your scent for granted (and possibly getting yourself arrested!), but the bottom line is that it really helps to have your very own Happy Sam. He knows stuff about tracking things that would never occur to ordinary mortals like you or me and which just aren't written about in books. He also happens to have a very interesting CV, derived, in part, from tracking rare wildlife species in some of the least hospitable places of the world for all kinds of organizations, as well as American, German and French TV!
Well, think what you like. I've been warned that it's not a very good idea to mention Big-Cats on the internet, though I can always delete any reference I make to them. Anyhoo, that's all I'm prepared to say on the subject from now on!
No Way to Treat an Icon
Firstly, I would like to say how sorry I am to hear about the sad demise of Magnus Magnusson....He was a gentleman, a true professional, an extremely knowledgeable ornithologist and....a legend! He'll be sorely missed!
Secondly....What the hell are the snot-nosed scheduling executive-types doing at the BBC? The 650th edition of "The Sky at Night" with a special guest astronaut making a one-off appearance and, of course, the brilliant Patrick Moore presenting....and it's to be aired at nearly three in the morning!
Apparently, there was absolutely no time-slot available during peak-viewing hours for the 10 minute show with its iconic presenter amidst the over-whelming tsunami of mind-bogglingly bland and talent-less z-list celebrities appearing on all the "Two of a Kind"-type reality crap that's getting so increasingly difficult to avoid of late!
I guess that even the BBC will feel it has to gradually succumb to the perceived public demand for air-head programming over and above such quality shows as "The Sky at Night". I suppose that TSaN's problem is that it actually "engages" people's minds and you can't have that can you? Yet, to treat a British institution like Patrick Moore in such a way defies belief! The man's an icon, part of our National heritage and, like similar icons "Fluff" Freeman and Magnus, he's not going to be around forever!
Come on BBC boss-types....you've got your personal parking spaces, the key to the executive washroom and a secretary to do at least 95% of your mostly self-justification-type work....let us have Patrick on our TV screens at a time when our children can benefit from this man's wonderfully enthusiastic and eminently charismatic presentation style. He is, after all, one of the very few celebrity thoroughbreds still available to grace our screens!
(Following On from Yesterday's Item)
Another day writing about the same subject....Pit-Bull Terriers....and I apologize in advance to those desperate enough to read any of the following rantings, but today I was made more than just a little bit angry....
When people are determined to be right no matter what, then there's no swaying them. In the 1960s and 70s it was the pro-smoking lobby....For them, all the medical evidence was inconclusive or unproven or just plain wrong. They persistently argued that smoking wasn't bad for you at all and that people were dying because of anything and everything BUT smoking! Everyone seemed to know of someone who'd smoked 40 or 50 cigarettes a day since they were about 11 years old and that it had never done them any harm at all! In fact, my own Grandfather smoked as many as 60 a day AND drank 7 or 8 pints of beer at the pub every night....and he lived to the ripe old age of 32!
The 1980s saw a handful of independent, maverick scientists raising tentative concerns about a possible link between human lifestyles, carbon emissions, the environment and a possible hole in the ozone layer. This they claimed, was a serious threat to the integrity of the polar ice caps and could even lead to a potentially disastrous rise in global temperatures. The more self-serving, predominantly corporate-based scientific community were desperate to denounce their theories as thoroughbred bunkum!
During the 1990s, an Oxbridge-based team led by an eminent socio-economic historian argued that the systematic dismantling of British industry, begun inadvertently by both industrial management and the unions throwing very large stones at each other in very small glass houses way back in the 1970s and continued far more overtly by Tory industrial policy in the 1980s, would lead, by the year 2000, to a society consisting of a relatively small percentage of highly-paid chairmen, managers, executives and administrators controlling a workforce that didn't actually make things any more, but bought what they needed from cheap labour-intensive countries based in Asia or Eastern Europe with money they would find increasingly easy to borrow! He maintained that both Government and individual debt would spiral out of control and that leisure would become the key industry, absorbing as much as 75% of disposable income. He believed that society would begin to break down in three major areas....the Health Service, Law and Order and Education! His theories managed to upset just about everyone at the time and he was denounced as a fool (particularly by the newly incumbent Government of the day) and all funding for his research was eventually rescinded!
These days we are forced to suffer a virtual miasma of self-centred groups and individuals refusing to accept the helping hands of plain truth and common sense as they rush headlong to be buried beneath an avalanche of their very own relentless stupidity (I suppose that 4 x 4 ownership by town-dwellers would fit neatly into that category)!
Today however, I listened on the radio to the arguments of the owner of a Pit-Bull Terrier as he tried to justify keeping such an animal in the same house as his baby son. He maintained that at no time was the child ever in danger because he was never left alone in a room with his beloved Pit-Bull....ever....and that he or his wife were ALWAYS on hand to prevent or "deal with" any potentially dangerous situation should it arise....except that it NEVER could arise in the first place simply because they had read all available literature about training and keeping Pit-Bulls and their particular dog had always been a truly lovable and 100% trustworthy domestic pet (which, presumably is why it's never left alone with the child!).
In addition, when it was suggested that it was not really a good idea to allow such a potentially dangerous animal anywhere near his baby under any circumstances, his response was to simply point out that "ALL dogs are potentially dangerous aren't they? Well, there we are then!"
Is it just me?
It's difficult to argue against such blindingly under-whelming logic, but there are one or two questions that I would like to ask....
1....Is there perhaps never a time when one or other of the dog's owners might be making a cup of tea in the kitchen when, suddenly, the other one leaves the dog and the child alone for just a moment to go to the loo, or to answer the door or is distracted by the telephone or by the news on the TV of a child attacked by a dog somewhere or perhaps they will need a minute or two to do some vacuum-cleaning or read a magazine or another book about Pit-Bulls? They might even suddenly need to pop to the shops at the request of their partner to get a pint of milk to make the tea in the first place! Meanwhile, at that precise moment, baby throws a plastic brick or a rubber frog at the dog or tries to eat a chocolate biscuit and teases the dog with it or grabs its collar or its tail as it walks past or the baby pees in its pants or on the floor (territory-marking behaviour in the world of the dog) or suddenly starts screaming because the dog ate its biscuit anyway or pokes the dog in the eye with Bob the Builder or....a thousand other things over which it is totally impossible to have complete control 100% of the time unless, maybe, you are Superdad or Mightymum!
....Apparently not, according to the frighteningly confident gent on the radio! He is, incidentally, exactly the kind of person you most definitely DO NOT want in your unit in the military....His type tend to get people killed simply because they always think they're in constant and total control of any situation and never accept that the unexpected is not only possible but imminent!
2....How long does this person think it would actually take a full-grown, healthy Pit-Bull Terrier (type) dog to cover a couple of metres and sink its teeth into a child's throat? I get the impression that they really do believe they would have time to stop it (just a word of command maybe?) and that by simply being in the same room as the child and the dog, they are eminently qualified to stop the child throwing its brick at the dog in the blink of an eye and to prevent the dog from reacting....(I must add for the benefit of any such people reading this item themselves (or, more likely, having it read to them) that this is just ONE imagined scenario out of an INFINITE number of possible scenarios and I do appreciate that your particular child may well not actually have any plastic bricks or rubber frogs of their own and might not even like Bob the Builder per se!).
3....Tragically, these people actually believe that they are experts on the subject because they have read a few books on Pit-Bulls and Pit-Bull behaviour. Perhaps this also enables them to read the mind of their own Pit-Bull....A very useful trick if you can do it! However....anyone who reads this website or its sister-site on a regular basis, will be only too aware of my opinions concerning "experts" and their generalized interpretations of animal behaviour!
I read a book once, about natural history (It may even have been two books!) in an effort to fuel my bewildering passion for birds and wildlife in general. I think one of them was actually about birds specifically! Despite this, I still consider myself to have experienced JUST enough about birds in the real world to understand that, once in a while, a bird will do something totally unexpected and entirely out of character....something which most definitely will NOT be found in the pages of any book written by an expert....EVER!
Books by experts tend to have one thing in common....they do not take into consideration the fact that not all, let's say Swallows, for the sake of argument, are the same! It is quite possible (even desirable) to draw general conclusions about the way that an entire species behaves concerning migration patterns for example, but this never takes the actions of the individual fully into account. Basically, a book about the migration of Barn Swallows in general would doubtless deliver a particular and accurate account of Swallow migration, but a book about the migratory behaviour of just one or two Swallows in particular would probably result in a very different book altogether!
What I'm trying to say is that it's entirely possible to read a dozen or more books about Pit-Bulls and consider yourself to be a virtual expert as a result, BUT it is vital to bear in mind that none of those books were written about YOUR Pit-Bull in particular....they can, therefore, be nothing more than general guides at best!
I have gone on and on about this because nothing makes me angrier than the man or woman who refuses to see the world as it really is and who insists that the rest of us should believe only what he or she is determined to believe according to his or her own selfish needs....nothing that is, except blatant ignorance and stupidity!
There will always be self-serving, self-interested people determined to be right no matter what....from denying the effects of smoking to lambasting overwhelming scientific evidence, from ridiculing economic and social determinism to insisting on living in town and driving a 4 x 4 or on keeping a Pit-Bull as a domestic pet....such attitudes will always fly in the face of common-sense and the wider good of all! What was it Gandhi once said...."Opinion born out of self-interest always was and will forever be Reason's most destructive enemy"!
(1st January, 2007)
I was rather hoping to start the New Year on a lighter note, but....
I know that there are Pit Bull Terriers out there who have kind and loving homes, who are raised and trained the way non-working dogs should be, but no matter how the animal has been brought up, there is always an element of risk with a breed that is the result of far too many generations subjected to what can only be termed "negative in-breeding" in a sustained effort to promote both physical strength and mental aggression!
For any owner of a Pit Bull to say that their particular animal is well trained, 100% safe and would never WANT to hurt anybody is a bit like the owner of a Golden Retriever arguing that their dog would never WANT to chase a stick thrown for it, even though it might be extremely well trained not to. I have a Lurcher and a small Greyhound and they are trained NOT to chase rabbits and sheep, but that doesn't mean that they don't WANT to chase them....and I'm damn sure that I wouldn't risk my mortgage on them not giving in to their basic instincts given exposure to every possible situation! For that reason alone, they are kept on their leads at all times when out on their walks....training or no training!
Pit Bulls are potential time-bombs....tick, tick, ticking away and I would personally like to see the breed gradually made extinct through a sustained programme of enforced non-breeding. Sadly, a little girl has lost her life today because of one man's self-centred refusal to accept the potential risks involved in keeping a fighting breed as a domestic pet....It's such an awful shame and a senseless, avoidable waste! Losing a child is something the family will never, ever get over fully and my heart goes out to them for all the anguish that lies ahead.
Jessops and John
I'd just like to commend the manager and staff of "Jessops" photographic shop in Cirencester who, in the middle of a very busy and extremely wet Saturday afternoon, were prepared to help out Scottish John, a totally bewildered and particularly damp elderly homeless man who had begun to feel very unwell while sitting in a cold, wet doorway alongside their shop.From what I could make out, John hadn't taken important medication to control his severe epilepsy for a couple of days and was growing more and more confused. He also looked quite jaundiced (even his eyes were yellow). The shop manager rang for an ambulance and very kindly, let him sit inside the shop (in full view of customers) until the ambulance arrived and eventually took John to hospital.
Sleeping rough during the winter is very tough at the best of times and, although it's not as cold recently as it might be, it's extremely wet and once your stuff is damp, it tends to stay damp and you seem to get cold from the inside out! John was cold like that and was bordering on being hypothermic. Now he's in the warm and dry with three squares a day until he's sorted out.…and that's mostly down to the kind folk in Jessops as much as anyone.
UKN Rangers sleep rough (bivouack) all year round, but we are all provided with the right kind of kit, plenty of professional back-up and have cosy, warm, dry homes to go back to if things don't go according to plan. John and thousands like him, don't ever have the right kit (let alone any kind of formal survival training) and they certainly don't have warm homes to run to if they get a bit damp or chilly.
So, you see, I've always got time for the homeless....most people see them as society's detritus....lost souls who don't somehow "measure up" to their high standards. The reality is that the homeless are a lot tougher than most ordinary people could ever imagine....they have to be and, if you doubt it, try sleeping rough a couple of nights in the middle of winter yourself on one pathetic meal a day (if you’re lucky) and see how you get on....but for the grace of God and all that....!
I have, believe it or not, occasionally been asked to give illustrated talks about wildlife to various groups of one kind or another....including two talks to the WI in darkest South Glos (gladly receiving payment in the form of jars of honey and a delicious chocolate sponge cake!). I've also discussed wildlife and global-warming issues with groups of progressively dazed village primary school children....I used to be a primary school teacher in the late 1980s and early 1990s and, after leaving paid teaching due to my past military experiences finally catching up with me, I went on to become fairly well known in the Cotswolds District by coaching football and athletics to several of the smaller village schools (pretty much as a therapeutic hobby) for more than twelve years.
I finally decided to call a halt to giving such talks however, after turning up at the local village hall last Saturday to give a talk on "Cotswold Buzzards" to the Premature Ejaculation Society. I arrived with all my stuff, but there was nobody there....apparently, they'd all come on the Friday!
Mrs. G e-mailed over Christmas wanting to know if I ever have stories, articles, poems, photographs, cartoons or any other stuff actually published and, if so, where and when would they be likely to appear in print. I can only guess that Mrs. G. is keen to know exactly which magazines or newspapers she needs to avoid!
Well, the fact is, I have had bits and pieces make it into various publications over many years, but don’t worry yourself about it too much Mrs. G because they are few and far between, especially these days!
The very first thing I ever got into print was a short story called “Santa Claws!“ when I was just twelve years old. It was a science fiction story about malicious toys that suddenly came to life at Christmas under the control of an evil alien Santa! It was printed in a boys adventure annual, but was much edited and barely recognizable from the original. My Dad (not me!) was paid 21/-, half of which was eventually given to me while the rest went towards house-keeping!
Wendy Pennydrops....Competitive Swimmer
(Any similarity between Wendy and my 14 year-old daughter is purely intentional)
The last thing of mine published to date was a two-page, tongue-in-cheek article (plus cartoon) entitled “The Essential Swimming Meet Survival Kit for Parents” (my daughter’s a swimmer) and it appeared in the August 2006 edition of the formerly highly regarded “Swimming Times” magazine. Sadly, this effort also fell foul of the editor’s knife with paragraphs enthusiastically cut, trimmed and “tidied” (nothing changes in the world of publication editing) which, to my mind, ruined the overall flow of the piece. This time though, I was rewarded with two identical complimentary issues of “Swimming Times” each containing my article! They also happened to arrive in the same post as the copy I receive via subscription….10/6d suddenly seemed a very princely sum indeed!
It was in the exact middle of Coach's wonderfully inspiring pre-race motivational tirade that Wendy suddenly realized that Tony really had cheated on Mandy in last night's episode of "Hollyoaks"!
I’ve rarely ever used my real name on anything submitted for publication and the various nomme-de-plumes I’ve chosen to use over the years have included such highly unlikely pseudonyms as Lou Spalls, Dicky Hart and Betty Swallocks, although quite a few people unfamiliar with my style of writing appear to believe that they are actually real! Ironically though, one of the most successful pieces I ever wrote as Lou Spalls early in 2006 was a serious piece called “Bird-Flu, You and What to Do” (subtitled “When the Guano Hits the Fan!”). Based partly on Government pandemic emergency strategies supplied recently to the military, emergency services and to us, it was enthusiastically received by several survivalist groups across the world, but mostly by those in Australia and the USA.
The US groups were particularly keen to serialize it in their own specialist periodicals and I have actually received several plaudits from what you might call the true Laguna-type backwoods survivalists whose idea of home security is a 50. Calibre machine-gun strategically placed in an upstairs bedroom window and a dozen or so claymores sprinkled around and about their 500 acre fortress-farm homesteads! Still, just so long as they’re happy….I’m sure they don‘t mean any harm!
Unfortunately, my style of writing is not generally embraced by the more discerning magazine editors and, apart from one or two recent and tempting offers from editors (presumably desperate to fill copy space) suggesting that I might do a couple of “Day in the Life of a Wildlife Ranger“ feature articles, I’ve only had one other thing, a short comedy-ghost story, aimed at young adults and called “Reynard’s Revenge“ published this year.
As for my so-called poetry….I just wouldn’t have the bare-faced gall to even contemplate sending any of it to anyone unless perhaps, I thought they deserved it! I write poetry because I enjoy doing it and I suppose it relieves some sort of irritating creative itch! More worryingly perhaps, at least for unsuspecting visitors to this site, is that I plan to upload a few tentative verses here!
A handful (three) of my photographs have won the odd “highly commended” prize in very small-scale, camera club-type competitions, but that was years ago when I cared about such things as the speed of my exposure and the size of my attachment and used old-fashioned, expensive 35mm film developed as slides. Going digital just means that I’ve joined every other Dick and his dog snapping thousands of delete-able pictures at anything or everything that moves (or stays still long enough) to get just half-a-dozen good images….and it always seems that most of those guys are much better at it than me anyway….and have still got much bigger attachments too....probably !
As his front teeth arced gracefully across the Dojo floor, Sensei couldn't help but be impressed with the power generated by Podge in his first board-breaking test...He also considered mentioning how important it was for a student to keep BOTH eyes open right up to that all-important moment of impact!
My cartoons have enjoyed a little more success with a wide variety of characters appearing in comic-strip form. “Podge”, was a somewhat over-weight, inept and liability-cursed karate club novice, who appeared in 15 issues of an American martial arts magazine back in the 1970s. "Ding", an anthropomorphised surfboard for hire at the local beach, proved a mysteriously popular character in the comic-strip “Stick-Tricks" and was featured in the original “Wavelength” surf magazine (not related to the current “Wavelength” mag) during the mid 1980s. Obsessive photography anorak, “Wide-Angle Willy” boasted every photographic gadget known to man and epitomized the familiar “all the gear and no idea” type of individual hell-bent on turning the lives of his close friends and family upside-down and inside-out in his quest for that “perfect“ picture! "Willy", together with his long-suffering ten year-old son, "Little Willy", was also the only one of my creations to actually appear regularly in a national publication!
“Kevin Kettle….Ninja Assassin (Bromford Branch)” (that’s him revitalized on the Home Page of this site) actually found popularity amongst mostly US servicemen in Japan as a result of my being seconded there (Kobe) back in the late 1970s and because I had virtually nothing to do during what little time I had off….except to practise my Japanese, master the compulsory ultra-strict social etiquette, eat vegetarian sushi, draw seabirds and eventually, out of sheer desperation, create “Kevin“! We were rarely even allowed off base by the Nihon Engankaibitai (Coastguard) Command without some sort of compulsory “escort“!
Some of my single-image, social commentary cartoons have shown up here and there (in usually highly unexpected places, including a porn magazine on one occasion....so I'm told!), having been trawled from the depths of various agency catalogues and I dare say that I’ve probably seen very few of the ones fortunate to actually make it into print simply because I opted to receive a one-off payment, up-front, for a whole batch of ready-drawn cartoons. The agencies are not always obliged to keep cartoonists informed as to where, when and how their work might be used.
I’ve always kept page-a-day-type diaries from when I was a boy (smaller versions when I was in the forces that fitted into my tunic pocket) and that, I’m assured, is because I’m a Cancerian (Crab people don’t only hide in their shells, moving side-ways through life avoiding confrontation, they like to write all about it as well!….it’s some kind of insecurity thing apparently!).
Meanwhile, there have been a couple of other “published” short stories (usually combining Natural History and Science Fiction) and a sprinkling of survival or “humorous” articles to keep me busy, but I gave up on the idea of being good enough to be considered a “proper” writer a long time ago. At least these websites give me some sort of outlet for my writing compulsion and no-one has to pay for it….not financially anyway!
The Moon has a supposedly character-defining effect on all Cancerians, but apart from feeling compelled to sit in the garden to howl loudly at it once a month when it's full, I don't think it affects me in the slightest!
General Diary Stuff
(Continued from the Left-Hand Column....)
Please note....because this page is full to bursting, the diary now continues on the "Red, Pink and Orange"
Royal Welsh and Black Watch
Caught by Roadside Bomb
Three British troops were killed by a blast from an improvised roadside device in the Al-Antahiya District of Basra City during the early hours of this morning. Apparently, they had dismounted from their Warrior armoured vehicle in order to conduct a routine check of their immediate area while en route to their base following a re-supply mission.
Cpl Paul Joszko (28), from Mountain Ash in Wales, served with the 2nd Battalion, The Royal Regiment of Wales (The Welsh Regiment), while his two comrades, Pvt Scott Kennedy from Oakley, Dunfermline and Pvt James Kerr from Cowdenbeath were both with the Black Watch, the 3rd Battalion, The Royal Regiment of Scotland. A fourth soldier was seriously injured, but is reported to be in a stable condition in a field military hospital.
They say that the older you get, the more compressed time seems to become, making it appear to pass much faster as the years go by. Mmm....that would explain why my last birthday only feels like it was three weeks ago!
Well, what can I say about the past year? What were the highlights? Is there any point? Er....Oh yes....the number of "hits" to my websites has just about doubled over the past twelve months and I understand that both readers are now regular visitors....So a special thank-you to them for their loyal support, while I suggest that they might consider a slightly stronger dose of their "special" medication for a trial period over the next few weeks!
Meanwhile, who could possibly forget all the fun times I've had since last Summer? Except for me that is....I can't remember what I did last Tuesday....or was it Wednesday?
Never mind....on the bright side, I still have my pretend friend to talk to and, amazingly, I'm still married....how many years is that now? Mind you, I don't think she'd ever leave me anyway and she'd certainly never have time for an affair, what with all those evening classes she goes to....and the all-weekend shopping trips to Tescos....the poor thing gets so tired!
It's been lovely to see my son again. He's come home from the Big City for a couple of days to help me celebrate my special day....and fill his suitcase with tinned food from my secret post-apocalyptic supply! My daughter on the other hand, is nearly fifteen!
So it's a very Happy Birthday from them and a Happy Birthday to me!
Three More Fatalities This Week
Drummer Thomas Wright (21) of the 1st Battalion, The Worcestershire and Sherwood Foresters (1WFR) was killed when his Land Rover was caught in an explosion during an attack on his supply-convoy near Lashkar Gah while en route to a new road-building project in the Babaji District of Helmand Province, Southern Afghanistan.
Drummer Wright was from Ripley in Derbyshire. Four other soldiers were injured in the attack.
Cpl John Rigby (24) of the 4th Battalion The Rifles and from Rye, East Sussex was fatally injured when a roadside bomb struck his vehicle not far from Basra Palace. He is the third member of The Rifles to die in Iraq in the past month. In an address to the media, Rigsby's Commanding Officer Lt Col Patrick Sanders, commented that "everyone in the Battalion is utterly heartbroken!".
According to senior officers, Cpl Rigby knowingly placed himself in extreme danger in order to protect his eight-man unit by providing "top cover" from the hatch of their armoured vehicle. The roadside device detonated moments later.
Cpl Rigby died in hospital with his twin brother, Will, at his bedside on the very night that they should have been celebrating their twenty-fourth birthday! Will Rigby is also a Corporal in the 4th Battalion, The Rifles.
Major Paul Harding (48), a Company Commander in the 4th Battalion The Rifles, died after sustaining serious injuries during a mortar attack on the Provincial Joint Co-ordination Centre in Basra. Maj Harding, who lived in Winchester with his wife and two sons, had served as a rifleman for thirty years and was very highly regarded by both his superior officers and those he commanded. He was renowned as a compassionate and approachable officer and was seen by many of the younger troops under his command as something of a father-figure.
Ring in the Changes!
I give up....today I'm hearing about a sixteen year-old Christian girl who has been banned by her school in Horsham, West Sussex from wearing a "purity ring" because, the school claims, it contravines its dress-code rules!
The girl wears the ring, which is inscribed with a Biblical verse, to symbolize her desire to remain celibate until after she has married (yes, there are still kids like that around) and she's now determined to make a stand against what she feels to be an infringement of her basic human rights (presumably under Article Nine of the Human Rights Act) and is taking the school to the High Court today....good for her!
The school insists, meanwhile, that the ring is not an integral part of the Christian religion which has forced the girl to argue that, since Muslim students attending the school are allowed to wear headscarfs and Sikhs may wear religious bracelets, then she should be permitted to keep the ring!
Well, as anyone who reads this site regularly will know, I'm not exactly what you could call a practising Christian (having had all that stuff well and truly ripped and torn out of me a long time ago) and no doubt the same people will be well aware that I know exactly where I'm going after I'm gone (if you see what I mean) if only because a certain someone knows that the number one thing on my list of "things to do after I'm dead" is to kick him in the nuts!
However....I feel that this girl's first real problem lies in the fact that her argument makes too much sense and, secondly, she happens to be absolutely right! These two factors combined are, by themselves, more than enough to offend a great many of the more spineless, PC-infatuated dim-wits out there whose sole function in life appears to be making complete a***holes of themselves at every opportunity!
A few months ago, the same people were banging-on about airline employees wearing Crucifixes (duh!) and then it was Muslim girls wearing veils to school and how intimidated it must make their fellow students feel (not to mention the teachers) when they can't see people's faces! I also seem to remember back in the 1950s and 1960s how other morons tried to insist that Sikh men should be forced to cut their hair and that all Blacks were Niggers and shouldn't be allowed in a white man's church! It may labelled differently these days and wrapped in more attractive packaging, but it's basically the same thing....will there never be an end to it?
Leave the kids alone....and leave this girl alone! I'm willing to bet my mortgage that no Muslim or Sikh associated with her at school has complained even once about any ring that she chose to wear....religious or otherwise!
It seems to me that the problems of this world are never going to get sorted out if the decision-makers and the people in charge at every level don't ever have the basic inner strength and determination required to simply accept the fact that we're all different and that, provided nobody actually gets hurt, we should all be allowed to express those differences in all sorts of little ways....veils, bracelets and rings included! If or when they ever do find that strength, then it's just remotely possible that the rest of us will be given half a chance to actually embrace those differences instead of being encourged to be more and more defensive!
Finally, bearing in mind that any school's primary concern should be to protect and develop the emotional and spiritual well-being of ALL children in their charge, I can't help but wonder why the staff and governors of this girl's school couldn't have anticipated the innevitable public reaction to such an outrageous decision in the first place and how they feel now that the weight of the world's media has decended upon such a vulnerable child's shoulders (or are they copping-out by blaming the parents?)....particularly at a time when she should really only be having to think about stuff like exams and basically, just preparing for the rest of her life!
Meanwhile, I admire the girl's grit and determination in the face of what, at the tender age of sixteen, must seem like a Herculean and daunting task, but then, maybe she'll go on to be some kind of a leader herself one day....she sounds like someone who'd get my vote!
By the way, out of all those of you who e-mail to complain that I've used the word "Nigger"....I'll bet not one of you is Black!
Let's Hope that the introduction of fifteen imported Scandinavian White-Tailed Eagles this week to Eastern Scotland meets with resounding success!
Sadly, the "Henry the Osprey" saga has ended in tragedy this week at Loch Torridon, Scotland with Henry accidentally killing one chick and the other two dying of natural causes!
Poland....haven't you ever seen "Fawlty Towers"?....For goodness sake, don't mention the War!
Well, that's the longest day over and done with, but crikey....that means there are only 187 shopping days left to Christmas!
While I Was Away....
"Tankie" Killed in Warrior Accident
L Cpl James Cartwright (21) of "Badger Sqdn", 2 Royal Tank Regiment, died when his Warrior armoured vehicle rolled off a bridge and was partially submerged in water in the As Sarraji District south of Basra on 16th June.
Cartwright was from London and was engaged to be married upon his return to the UK.
He had been due to leave the army in order to become a fire-fighter in Lincolnshire, but had chosen to stay on for one more tour of duty in Iraq entirely out of loyalty to his Squadron and his Regiment.
Grenadier Guardsman Killed
in Taliban Ambush
Guardsman Neil "Tony" Downes (20) of the 1st Battalion The Grenadier Guards died this week after his Land Rover was caught in a Taliban ambush in Sangin Province, Southern Afghanistan.
Downes was highly regarded as a totally professional, resolute and outstandingly bright soldier. Having acquired no less than 16 GCSEs (!) at school, all he ever wanted to do was be in the Army. He was from Manchester and had already served a full tour in Iraq with the elite Inkerman Coy in an intelligence capacity. Ironically, he was due home from Afghanistan at the end of the month.
From what I understand, his role in Afghanistan was a predominantly reconnaissance/intelligence-gathering one and his profound knowledge of the local area was of great benefit to those whose subsequent actions innevitably depended on the information that Downes and his unit were able to provide.
Such is the role of reconnaissance....by its very nature, it requires that the people who obtain such vital intelligence about enemy troop movements and logistical activities are, more often that not, completely isolated from any main force and are expected to act almost entirely independently....sometimes for weeks at a time. It's also ironic perhaps, that Downes was possibly acting outside of his remit the day that he died in order to go to the rescue of an Afghan Army patrol ambushed and hopelessly pinned down in a separate incident some distance away from his own unit's position!
Amazingly and despite all three soldiers suffering wounds of one sort or another, the remainder of Downes' unit managed to successfully stave off the numerically superior and strategically better positioned Taliban force until re-inforcements arrived! The Afghan patrol was also, I gather, successfully rescued.
As a footnote to this piece, I would just like to add that it's Downes' incredibly moving, yet inspirational letter to his girlfriend (only to be opened in the event of his death), that has been published by his family in the National newspapers recently. I believe that it was read very movingly on BBC Radio 2's excellent Jeremy Vine Show on the 22nd June, causing even huge, ugly Scouser and Geordie lorry drivers to pull over into the nearest lay-by and sob helplessly into their hankies! I also understand that some idiot phoned in to the show to say that they thought it was macabre that the media even considers the death of a British soldier to be news-worthy....Yes...well, I'm just glad I was out at the time!
Leah Laid to Rest
It may not look like much at the moment, but one day I hope that this little Ceanothus will grow to be a huge, bushy tree covered in beautiful, sweet-scented swathes of insect-attracting purple flowers!
Leah, my dog, finally arrived back home from the animal crematorium a couple of days ago in a little blue ceramic urn. We burried her today, together with her collar and planted a little Ceanothus tree to mark her resting place. The Ceanothus should prove to be a great favourite with Butterflies and Bees in years to come.
Tomorrow I'm off to Cornwall for a week or so.
150th British Fatality!
The one hundred and fiftieth British soldier to be killed in Iraq has been identified today as Cpl. Rod Wilson (30) of the 4th Battalion The Rifles. He was from Wiltshire.
He was killed yesterday during a raid in the District of al-Atiyah, North-West of Basra as he ran from cover to rescue a wounded comrade pinned down by heavy gunfire. Sadly and despite being air-lifted to the City's main base within minutes, he died just over an hour later!
Lt. Col. Patrick Sanders, Wilson's CO, paid a particularly warm tribute to this soldier and I would like to include it here....
"He was, in simple terms, a maverick. He loved to challenge convention and upset apple carts. He was argumentative, challenging, thoughtful, highly intelligent and, more often than not, completely right....but in spite of this wilful streak to his character, he sailed through life effortlessly, making friends and gaining admirers along the way and this was because of his immense charm and character. One just had to admire him....he could charm the birds out of the trees, call black white, inflict a mischievous prank on you and have you agreeing with him and laughing all at the same time. He was remarkable and truly unique....a free spirit....and we will all miss him terribly!".
Not a Good Day
If you're of a more squeamish disposition, then please don't read any further.
A short walk of about five miles earlier this afternoon had resulted in a recce out towards the sound of a shotgun being fired a mile or so in the distance. It was a slight diversion from what I'd been doing at the time, but I thought it was worth a quick looksee just to check out who was doing the shooting and at what. I planned to get close, unobserved, take a few pictures and call for help if need be.
Unfortunately, I never got to see the person or persons doing the shooting, but it wasn't long before I came across two of their targets....It was plain to see that whoever it was, had spent some time combing the area for Woodpigeon nests and had then proceeded to blast them out of the trees!
They left the carnage littering the ground behind them, including a total of four adult birds and seven chicks at various stages of development....all dead! However, I just happened to hear the almost inaudible and pathetic cry of another chick coming from somewhere deep in the undergrowth beneath the shattered remains of what had, less than twenty minutes before, been its nest.
So what the hell had this poor little b*****d ever done to deserve this?
It wasn't long though, before I found the little scrap who was barely alive, drifting in and out of consciousness and in excruciating pain! There was nothing I could do for it. It had taken the full force of a 10-bore shotgun blast from the front and slightly below. As you can see from the picture, the force of the blast had completely dislocated both upper and lower sections of its beak and a small piece of pellet remained lodged in the back of the head behind its left eye. I thought it best not to show the photo that I took of the right-hand side of its face, which had been completely blown away, together with the right eye! The right wing was also broken! That this creature was still alive was nothing short of a miracle!
I carry a small bottle of chloroform (possibly unlawfully....I don't give a s**t) and a couple of cotton-wool swabs in my belt-pack to help deal with cases like this (the ones involving smaller animals) and it wasn't long before I had delivered the little bird into a state of deep unconsciousness. I was then able to despatch it humanely and without it suffering for so much as a second longer than necessary....I don't like them to die either afraid or in agony!
Unfortunately, such things always haunt me for days afterwards and yes, I know it's just a bl**dy pigeon, but it was very badly injured....and that's made far worse by the fact that this was a totally unnecessary, cruel and despicable act perpetrated by soulless s**theads with shotguns for whom, it would appear, that suffering is to be encouraged....so long as it isn't happening to them personally!
It would also appear that for such people, there will never ever be enough suffering in the world to satisfy their throw-back primordial urges....Nor will they ever have the strength of character to resist the all-consuming compulsion to add their own tuppence-worth to the ever-growing pile of pain and misery....COMPLETE MORONS!
Later still, I came across a little Muntjac Deer that had been hit hard by a vehicle of some sort and had fallen, semi-conscious, into a roadside ditch, possibly only minutes before I happened along! This was a very seriously and hopelessly injured animal that was in a great deal of pain and I felt obliged to put it out of its misery as quickly as possible (the photos, which I must always take for recording purposes, are far too unpleasant to show here).
It was too large an animal to consider using chloroform this time....it would almost certainly have taken too long to work and would probably have burned its nasal passages, throat and eyes, only adding to its suffering....not to mention the risk to me as well! It was a very quick death for the animal though and relatively painless....and the poor thing had little or no time to be afraid!
I absolutely hate doing these things and I wish that vets would volunteer their services, but there are very few who will do it, even with plenty of warning, let alone at the drop of a hat. The methods I use are highly effective however and are ones that I learnt as a zoo keeper back in the 1960s when such things were often the responsibility of the keepers themselves. Modern zoos today of course, employ the services of vets to treat all types of animal sickness and injuries and very little work of that type seems to be done by the keepers anymore!
I could always call the RSPCA, but it takes time to get someone to respond, especially if they're busy....and even then, the officer who shows up will probably want to waste more time calling in a vet of their own....a lot more! Meanwhile, the animal will continue to suffer unnecessarily, it might be badly traumatised, it will certainly be in a great deal of pain and it will be very, very afraid! The last thing it needs is to have three or four clod-hopping people milling around it while they try to make up their minds about the "best course of action to take"....especially when it turns out (innevitably) to be exactly the same course of action that I could have taken myselt two or three hours beforehand!
People are always telling me what a great job I have....walking around, out and about in the country-side all day long, enjoying the sunshine....Well, sometimes they're wrong....very wrong....they don't know the half of it!
It's not all doom and gloom however, where injured animals are concerned, as I do tend to find quite a few sick or injured ones who look as though they might just manage to recover if subjected to a little bit of TLC and then they can be released back into the wild! I usually manage to rescue the odd individual or two from a wide variety of species every year and usually manage to return them to the wild a few days or even a few weeks later!
L/Cp. Paul Sandford (23) of the 1st Battalion, The Worcestershire and Sherwood Foresters (29th/45th Foot) was killed early today in the Gereshk Valley, Helmand Province, Southern Afghanistan.
He was leading his unit as they advanced upon heavily defended positions in a Taliban stronghold when he was hit by a single bullet. He was immediately evacuated to the medical centre at Camp Bastion by helicopter, but was unfortunately pronounced dead upon arrival.
He leaves behind him his young wife, Gaynor.
"Uppity Bill" makes the most of his chance to peer in through the living-room window to catch-up on the latest events in today's episode of "Peoplewatch"!
An e-mail came flooding in a couple of weeks ago from a Ms. G who had noticed that I have one of those window bird-feeders (Sparrow-Terrace photo, 25th April entry) and she wanted to know if enough birds would ever come close enough to an inhabited building to feed from it to make it worth spending nearly £7.00 to get one.
She also has a twelve year-old son who she says is showing an ever-increasing interest in wildlife in general and birds in particular (Bill Oddie's fault apparently). However, they live by themselves in a third storey flat with no garden of their own, but would like to be able to encourage more birds into their immediate area. She says that her son spent weeks making a nest-box at school earlier in the year and a neighbour kindly put it up in a tree for the boy outside his bedroom window. Unfortunately however, the box was stolen by persons unknown the following night, well before any birds had chance to show an interest.
These two young Great Tits are one half of the family of four fledglings that emerged from the bird-table nestbox in my back garden (see below). They seem to be growing very quickly, but continue to hang out with their parents in and around the front and back gardens. The window-feeder has been a tremendous hit with all of them and they particularly enjoy either the varieties of mixed suet or the nibbed peanuts that I top it up with.
Well, as far as window bird-feeders are concerned, the only problem I've personally experienced has been with the Jackdaws who soon learnt how to dislodge the whole thing in their attempts to make off with the entire contents in one fell swoop! Other birds however, use it far more sensibly and with great frequency. It's very popular with the Blue Tits nesting in the Sparrow- terrace nest-box above the window, as well as with the local House Sparrow mob themselves. Great Tits love it, Greenfinches and Chaffinches too and, of course, the Robins. The best thing about it is that you can get to see the birds really close-up....if you're prepared to stand very still. It seems that they very often fail to notice you through the glass.
"Uppity Bill" (above picture) meanwhile, seems to enjoy nothing more than to sit for ages actually inside the feeder, peering into the house to watch all the comings and goings while occasionally tucking into the odd nibbed peanut or suet granule....bliss, apparently, as far as he's concerned.
I would say Ms.G, that lacking any kind of garden to call your own, it really is a very good idea to get a window bird-feeder and position it outside your son's bedroom window where the birds can fly to it from the nearby tree.
Footnote....The Boss has since been in contact with Ms. G and her son and subsequently arranged for Macca and Joe Jing to turn up at their home, not only with a window bird-feeder (that Joe then installed for the boy so that he could access it safely without having to lean out of the window), but also with a couple of bird nest-boxes and a Bat-box. Then they all drove off in one of our Land Rovers to a nearby woodland that Macca regularly surveys just a few miles away and showed the boy how to put up the nest-boxes and the Bat-box in suitable locations. On top of that, he presented the boy with a Collins "Bird Guide" (the birder's bible) and a pair of Opticron 8 x 32 binoculars (courtesy of the Boss) and has made him responsible for monitoring any activity in the boxes over the next five years and reporting it back to the Boss's secretary direct....I also think that Macca has a bit of a thing for Ms. G, judging by what Joe told me and how red he went when I mentioned it. Still, they're both single and Ms. G could do a lot worse.
Macca may bear more resemblance to a bald Yeti than a human being, but there's no doubt that he has a heart of gold and, once he finds what can only be described as the "right woman", then he''ll be completely devoted and woe-betide anyone stupid enough to ever try to hurt her (he's that type....according to a mystery source very close to me and currently cooking tea in the kitchen, but who prefers to remain anonymous). He's actually calmness incarnate and I have only ever seen him or heard of him losing his temper once and that was with an animal rights protester/extremist who was threatening a horse and it's rider with a blow-torch during an anti-hunt protest that we were observing a few years ago. He ran over to the guy, felled him with one mighty blow to his jaw and then picked up the blow-torch fully intending to, as he so delicately put it at the time, "roast the b****rd's nuts"! It took four burly police officers to restrain him and then he only calmed down when a WPC joined in and threatened to whack him with her....er...whacker-stick!
Anyhoo....the window bird-feeder and nest-box incident was a one-off, but I think that the Boss felt sorry for the boy....I guess he's just a big old softy! Incidentally, this wasn't some kind of publicity stunt and this website is the only place where the whole thing has been made public. It's even possible that the Boss will make me delete it because he hates almost all publicity....it's not how we work!
Five US helicopter crew plus two other military personnel, one Canadian and one British, were all killed early today when their CH-47 Chinook was brought down (probably by an enemy-launched RPG) near the trouble-torn Kajaki Sofla in Helmand Province, Afghanistan.
The British soldier was Cpl. Mike "Gilly" Gilyeat (28) of the Royal Military Police. He was a specialist photographer assigned to the Media Operations Team based in Kandahar.
Unfortunately, I have not been able to obtain details of the other personnel involved.
Please note....I continue to get an increasing number of what I can only describe as "negative" and occasionally "aggressive" communications via internet cafes and the like, concerning the dedications to fallen servicemen and women that I post on this website. For some reason, certain people, who always prefer to either remain anonymous or use pseudonyms of one sort or another, such as "Ratman", "3K" or "4Justice", appear to find them extremely offensive, with most arguing that it's not my place to post such dedications in the first place!
Well, I'm not going to start defending all over again what I do and why I do it, but I shall repeat something I've said previously in this diary....that should any relative of any military casualty, British or otherwise, or any element of the military itselt, British or otherwise, request or demand that I refrain from making such dedications and/or that I remove any or all of those already posted, then I shall do so immediately and without hesitation. Just contact me via the link on www.wildliferanger.co.uk with a proof-positive ID signature and I shall comply. I shall not however, kow-tow to a handful of anonymous, dark-place individuals with more personality disorders than brain cells who are too afraid to step into the light!
I post such dedications because I care and I want to remind all those who take the time to read these entries of the huge and on-going sacrifices that all soldiers, sailors and airmen/women everywhere are prepared to make on their behalf and on behalf of their nations and their Governments....no matter how self-serving or misguided the latter may be. It's the ordinary squaddie, bootneck or grunt (and their families) who always pick up the tab and pay the true price....no matter how high that price turns out to be....and I'm prepared, if not determined, to remind everyone everywhere of that fact....constantly!
On a lighter note, I would like to thank the eminently discerning employee of the vast and highly prestigious underwater research establishment that provides such vital development services for both the Royal Navy and the US Navy, for purchasing one of my photographs from "Imagekind". This is my FIRST and ONLY sale....EVER! Mind you, they might just have bought it to send to someone that they don't like very much!
Anyhoo, I would like to assure them that all profits from the sale accruing to me ($1.68) will soon be winging its way into the desperately diminished coffers of the Royal National Lifeboat Institution in the form of a cheque already written out by the Imagekind team!
Again....thank-you, thank-you, thank-you! I wonder though....does that mean I'm a fully-fledged "professional" photographer now....or should I stick with the day job?
So eating a Swan as part of a public performance in protest at the Royal family apparently isn't enough for so-called performance artist Mark McGowan....now he's eaten a Welsh Corgi in protest at the Duke of Edinburgh killing a fox at Sandringham!
McGowan you're a pr**k! You don't get it do you? You don't have a clue when it comes to animal welfare, physical or emotional. Nor do you show any respect for an animal's right to have at least a degree of personal dignity....living or dead. They're just mindless, soulless creatures to people like you. Now, more than ever, I'm convinced that your stunts are much more about "Mark McGowan" than any of your nebulous, altruistic so-called causes in the name of preventing cruelty to animals!
Do you really think that you're the only one who gets upset when animals, wild or domestic, are treated badly? You should try doing our job for a few months....getting up close and personal with the kind of scumbags who relish making the lives of some animals a total and absolute misery! It seems to me that you just have a grievance with the Royal family and that's really saying a lot more about you I think!
If you had any balls at all, then you'd become an RSPCA officer yourself and get on the pointy end of animal welfare instead of criticising such an outstanding and hard-working organization out of sheer and total ignorance!
I'll tell you what....if you're so damn angry about how badly certain people behave towards animals, then why don't you come along with us next time we're helping to take down some inner-city council estate dog-fighting ring? In fact, you can be the first through the door if you like and then you can try telling the slavering human sub-species congregating inside exactly what you think of them instead of employing your pathetic, publicity-seeking Swan and Corgi-eating antics....Mind you, I dare say that the only publicity you'll be likely to get out of gate-crashing an illegal dog fight is a paragraph or two in the obituary column of your local rag and that wouldn't do at all would it?
Oh well, I guess you'd better just stick to haranguing the Royals....after all, it's a good deal easier....and safer and much better for your floundering "acting" career!
Oh, by the way....if you're planning to pull off another stunt like this one, then I suggest that you don't do it anywhere near our very own ex-SBS ranger, Sean....he's got a Corgi of his own and he's very fond of them as a breed....and you've pi***d him off a bit!
Guardsman and Royal Anglian Killed
Guardsman Daniel Probyn of the 1st Battalion the Grenadier Guards was killed in the Afghan town of Garmsir, Helmand Province yesterday. His unit came under heavy fire from Taliban forces during an offensive action against enemy positions. Four other Guardsmen were injured in the same incident.
Shortly after this, Cpl. Darren Bonner (31) of A Co. 1st Battalion, The Royal Anglian Regiment was also killed in Helmand Province during an insurgent attack upon the convoy with which he was travelling. Apparently, Bonner was planning to marry his fiance and buy a house when he next returned to the UK. Like all of them out there, he was an ordinary guy doing an extremely shitty job, but doing it with complete and total professionalism to the absolute best of his ability and I'm willing to bet that his loss will be a heavy blow to the younger members of his company in particular, to whom the older NCO's are usually very important father-figures and who they often turn to for emotional support when they're at their lowest ebb.
Mr. Blair, doubtless you know that UK troops are being forced to deal with increasingly ferocious attacks at every turn (in Afghanistan especially) as the Rebel Spring offensives gather momentum. Now, more than ever it seems, British squaddies (the ones currently up to their necks in grimly determined, heavily armed, increasingly organized and highly motivated rebels and insurgents) desperately need for you and your gang of tag-along decision-makers back here in good old Blighty to ensure that they have the exact level of logistical support they so urgently require if you really want them to have the remotest chance of maintaining a viable presence in an increasingly hostile environment. You must surely realize by now that their job is an almost impossibly difficult one, but one nevertheless, that they are still managing (goodness knows how) to do....and still with the absolute minimum of casualties! How long though, can even the very best of soldiers be expected to maintain such a high level of efficiency without the proper equipment and resources?
Basically Mr Blair, for as long as you keep insisting that British servicemen and women should be out there at all, constantly placing themselves in jeopardy and continuing to be more than happy to put their big fat ugly backsides on the line for you, then you have to give the poor b*****ds all the support necessary to enable them to continue doing the filthy miserable damn job properly....or bring them home and try doing it yourself....though I dare say that if it was you out there, then you certainly wouldn't be scavenging around for vital components from secondary support vehicles in order to give your patrol Land Rover at least a 50% chance of returning to base without breaking down....and I bet you'd be getting someone else to clean all the grit and shit from the constantly eroding plastic and alloy inner gubbins of your crappy SA80 rifle four or five times every day.
Mmm....how about you give our soldiers M16s instead of the SA80 or, even better, solid, dependable and totally utilitarian AK47s? No? Then at least let them go back to the good old-fashioned SLR1A1....it was an ugly weapon and it was heavy, but it had a persistent tendency to actually work when you needed it to and it could stop a truck....believe it or not, it's really quite surprising how good for morale knowing such things can be!
Rifles and Anglian Fatalities
Cpl. Jeremy Brookes (28) of the 4th Battalion, The Rifles was sadly killed in Basra, Iraq yesterday. He was on routine patrol when his unit was ambushed by insurgents. He sustained fatal injuries during the small-arms fire-fight that ensued.
Another British serviceman was killed earlier in the week at Sangin Base, Helmand Province, Afghanistan, in what I understand was a tragic firing-range accident. L/Cpl George Russell Day (23) was serving with the 1st Battalion, Royal Anglian Regiment and was second in command of 5 platoon, B (Suffolk) Co. He was the father of two young daughters.
Although L/Cpl Day was not actually killed in action, it is vitally important that his personal contribution to the war effort is fully recognized. He was still a casualty of the war, if only for the simple reason that obsessive training and preparedness procedures are as much a part of British military involvement in any conflict as the fighting itself....In fact, it's the huge emphasis on training, discipline and preparation within all elements of the British military that ensures that UK casualty figures remain as low as they do (despite the short-fallings of the politicians), particularly in places like Iraq and Afghanistan where attacks against British troops have been particularly fierce for some time!
This, of course, is cold comfort to the families and friends of those service personnel who have already been killed or seriously wounded in any conflict around the world....and I'm more mindful of that fact than most. Nevertheless, it's a combination of the almost paternal "you must keep at it chaps, until you get it right EVERY time" attitude of the average BFPO Company CO right through to the uniquely unsettling (and I quote from thirty years ago) "get it right this time trooper or I'll cut your f****** nuts off with that rusty excuse for a pig-sticker you call a f****** bayonet and force-feed them and it down your f****** throat like a f****** kebab!" in-your-face approach of the always popular and much-beloved RSM who, between them, somehow manage to ensure that young soldiers on a very steep learning curve remain fully focssed on the task at hand and that the number of desperately grieving families will forever and always be far fewer than would otherwise be the case!
There's actually quite a lot to be said for the British military way of doing things....thankfully!
It's been a week now since Leah died and Sam and I have had a pretty miserable time of it. We both really miss her, but I'm also quite worried about Sam....he seems so down in the mouth, which is really unlike him. It's very obvious that he's missing his old friend very much and has frequent periods of what can only be described as heart-wrenching depression, when he just lies down somewhere out of the way, such as behind the settee or under the dining-room table, puts his chin between his paws and whimpers to himself almost inaudibly. It really upsets me to see and hear him like it....though I guess we make a fine pair of miseries because I've had plenty of my own bad moments as well!
On the other hand, he's getting lots more individual attention, special treats and extra walks and I dare-say he'll gradually get back to his old dipsy-brained self again sooner or later!
Of course, the first couple of weeks in May is when I normally do my ten lots of twelve-mile yomps. I always walk along the same route across the Cotswold Hills, in the same fields and woods and around the same villages each and every time (regardless of weather conditions) and I simply count and record the number of Skylarks that I see. After all of the ten walks have been completed (usually over ten days), I calculate the average number of birds that I counted each day and compare the result with those of previous years. This is my own on-going effort to determine approximate Skylark population numbers in one particular area over several years and I merely wish to establish, for my own personal reasons, whether or not the species is in decline in my particular neck of the woods (see the "Survey" page at www.wildliferanger.co.uk).
This year however, I've not yet been able to complete all ten walks in the first ten days and I still have two to do. Other things have had to take preference, but I shall complete the other yomps this week....probably tomorrow and the day after. Just so long as they're all done by the end of May, then it shouldn't affect the results too much.
I've actually received a fair bit of very rude criticism by e-mail over the last eighteen months or so, especially since first highlighting my various survey efforts on my websites and particularly from people who like to describe themselves as "proper birders"! Apart from considering my internet sites to be full of (and I quote) "sad and very average pictures", "totally irrelevant rubbish" and "complete peurile nonsense", such people argue, probably with some justification, that what I do is far too unscientific and is, basically, a "complete waste of time"!
That's not really a problem for me, if only because I no longer try submitting any of my findings to anyone else....professional or otherwise. Basically, I don't have any vaulted expectations and I don't ever expect my findings to be taken all that seriously anyway. What I do, I do for myself and for my own reasons. I know that my methods are not particularly scientific, but I choose to display the results on my website for the benefit of anyone out there who might just happen to be a little bit interested. After all, I did once have one very encouraging e-mail from amateur bird-watcher Mr. K, who thought my efforts were actually quite interesting and that many of my results coincided with those of his own survey work in similar areas....so, if nothing else, I like to think that uploading all this stuff will at least please the Mr. Ks of this world.
Being a "proper" birder, ie: chasing off at the drop of a hat to far-flung corners of the UK simply to add ticks to a list and then behaving like a vandal and a cretin when you get there, has never appealed to me personally and I'm easily bored by people who feel compelled to continually flaunt their birding credentials by reciting endless lists of amazing birds they've driven hundreds of miles to glimpse! I guess that I must seem pretty odd to them because I'm more than happy with what I do and get an enormous amount of satisfaction from just looking out of my kitchen window and watching a pair of Robins simply going about their daily business!
It's the "behaviour" of birds that fascinates me, not the fact that they might be a scarce or rare vagrant suddenly turning up somewhere near Wells-next-the-Sea! I'm intrigued by the ecological niche that birds carve for themselves within an environment and I'm drawn to the much bigger picture that includes anything and everything that's the least bit interactive....connections and balance are, for me personally, what it's all about!
As I've said before, maybe it's because I used to be responsible for the health and welfare of hundreds of truly exotic species of birds years ago that I simply don't feel any over-whelming urge to tear about the country-side just to see something "special"! For me, that kind of obsessive-neurotic birding is barely a step up from standing on a motorway bridge and "spotting" personalised car number plates!
I get fed up with the amount of abuse I get from birders in particular, both on and off the internet and who I constantly seem to be able to annoy or upset for some reason or other. The argument I found myself having with a particularly unpleasant, so-called birder less than two weeks ago is a good case in point....I had seated myself down to eat my lunch on a grass verge opposite the main entrance to a pretty little woodland in Wiltshire, when two men in a blue and silver 4 x 4 rounded a bend in the lane and stopped a couple of metres from me. I smiled and nodded at them, but the driver sounded his horn and indicated that he wanted to pull-up onto the verge to park. I remained seated and continued with my desperate, but losing battle to remove the sealed wrapping from a Nutri-Grain bar. With this, the man lowered his side-window and, shouting above the strains of a heavy-rock Will Young track emanating from his blaring CD player, firmly suggested, without so much as a please or thank-you, that I "get out the way!".
Pointing down the lane, I suggested helpfully, that he might try using the small car-park provided by the excellent Wiltshire Wildlife Trust about seventy-five metres further on. I then pointed at the grass verge itself and alerted him to the fact that it was currently awash with sun-bright yellow Welsh Poppies and that his penis-size-compensating vehicle would certainly crush many of them if he parked it there (his vehicle that is, not his penis)!
"I ent 'ere to look at bloody flowers! I've come to see the Pallas Warbler and we ent parkin' all the way down there!" At this, he picked up a pair of £1000, top-of-the-range Swarovski binoculars from his dashboard and waved them at me, thus confirming his status as both a birder and a thoroughly insecure, inadequate tosser with even bigger compensation issues than I had at first thought!
I declined his offer that he and his thick-set friend (also with a fine pair of Swarovskis, but dangling around his neck, presumably at the ready to "twitch" the afore-mentioned Warbler at a moment's notice!) might help remove my apparently sorry er....bottom from the now disputed grass verge.
Ridiculous as it seems, I guess I would have fought and died to save those bloody Welsh Poppies....right there and then on that sunny day in the middle of the beautiful Wiltshire country-side. Such stupidity comes, I'm assured, as part of my military inheritance....a badly abused and subsequently dysfunctional psychological demeanour....damaged goods forever beyond complete repair or, as Macca puts it so succinctly....I'm just a d*ckhead!
Fortunately, the birders drove on towards the car-park after an impressive, almost ritualistic Baboon-like display involving creatively-worded expletives, disgruntled, glowering looks and highly imaginative finger gestures, all of which failed to elicit any further response from me as I had henceforth, chosen to ignore them completely.
As for the Pallas Warbler....if there ever was one, I certainly didn't see it. I did enjoy an infinitely more enjoyable little moment however, as I went on to share my Nutri-Grain bar (which I eventually liberated from its wrapper using my knife) with a very hungry and inquisitive young Jay!
I don't have the biggest of gardens, but I've spent the last fourteen years making it as attractive as I can to as wide a variety of wildlife as possible....and it seems to be working. As far as the birds are concerned for example, this year promises to be the most successful yet, with eleven pairs of birds now nesting in a variety of locations on my property!
Barely twenty-four hours old, these three tiny scraps of bottomless appetite wait impatiently for the return of their doting Dunnock parents! I became suddenly aware of their enthusiastic vocalising late yesterday afternoon as they each pleaded to be fed every time a parent bird returned to the nest with a tasty snack. The nest itself, is secreted in the fir trees next to the big shed and I'm pleased to say that all three chicks appear to be very strong, are competing well for food and seem to be in very good health.
I had actually been worried for several days last week when the adult birds appeared to have deserted the nest....it wouldn't be the first time over the years that Dunnocks have abandoned their nest-sites in my garden. This jittery species can sometimes be scared off quite easily by people just going about their daily business! Thankfully though, I had nothing to worry about after all.
A word of warning however....if you have birds of any species nesting in your own garden, DO NOT risk making them feel threatened in any way or tempted to abandon their eggs or young. Resist looking in the nest altogether! Some species may be more resolute than others, but even one tiny peek can frighten some birds away from the site and actually discourage them from breeding in your garden ever again!
I managed to take the above photograph without physically disturbing the nest-site in any way shape or form and the parents were blissfully unaware of what I was doing. Sometimes however, such covert photography is physically impossible due to the nest's location. This is the case with the Wrens, Robins and the Blackbirds currently nesting in my garden so I just leave them alone and make no attempt to either check on their progress or take pretty pictures!
The current tally is as follows....Two pairs of House Martins and four pairs of Blue Tits are nesting at the front of the house, with two of the Blue Tit pairs and one pair of Martins currently feeding youngsters! Then there's a pair of Dunnocks with three chicks (shown above) in the fir trees next to the big shed, the Great Tits now have young (I don't know how many) in the bird-table nest-box, the Blackbirds ("DT" and his mate) are trying to cope with two surviving, but very large fledglings (the same as last year), "Uppity Bill" and "Stroppy Madam" the Robins have youngsters in a nest behind the top shed and a pair of Wrens are sitting on eggs in a nest in the trees behind the Bramble bushes. Meanwhile, three of the nest-boxes dotted around the garden remain unused and, sadly, the Sparrows have chosen not to nest under the lower eaves at the front of the house this year....probably because of all the Blue Tits!
I've circled the location of the Dunnock's nest-site in the picture above which I took with a flash as the light was fading. The trees are actually no more than three metres from where I sit to work on the computer in the dining room, right beside the patio windows. I believe that the adult birds have grown at least partially used to my frequent comings and goings since they "moved in" a few weeks ago and they now take very little notice of me.
So Harry wont be going to Afghanistan after all....pity! I guess that there'll be a lot of relatives of British soldiers currently serving in war zones around the world who will feel that their loved ones are somehow less important than Harry....more expendable! On the other hand, there are probably a fair few troops currently serving in Afghanistan who will be very relieved that he wont be deployed anywhere near them! If nothing else, it would take an awful lot of foot-slog reconnaissance by specialist units almost permanently deployed in the mountains and outlands to keep him safe....It would be very tough for those guys!
Whatever....The Top Man has decided that Harry wont be going, so that's that!
A Horrible, Horrible Day!
Leah, lying in her basket on the patio and enjoying the sunshine just a few days ago.
Returning home from Dowdeswell late yesterday afternoon, I was met by my wife who told me that my dog, Leah, had taken a slight turn for the worse health-wise and had begun to show disorientation symptoms similar to those she was treated for a few weeks ago.
I gave her some of her medication and sat with her for most of the evening to help keep her calm. She became distressed if I left her for more than a few minutes. Later she managed to walk out into the garden to do her business (a normal walk was out of the question). I put a blanket on the settee, laid her on it and she eventually settled down to sleep.
I stayed with her in case she woke up all confused or in pain.
I must have dozed off while reading and was woken with a start around 0300hrs by Leah crying out. It was soon apparent that she was much, much worse and had gone into a sudden, steep decline! She was almost totally unable to control her movements well enough to even stand, let alone walk. She was very frightened and in some pain I think!
I sat with her on the settee until 0800hrs. She continued to be very much aware mentally and panicked if I made as if to leave her. She slept fitfully through the night, but suffered bouts of severe disorientation, occasionally crying out as if in a fair amount of pain. I kept her calm by talking to her most of the time. She was running a high temperature at times and I kept her hydrated by squeezing cool tap water down her throat from a sponge dipped into a jug.
It was a long, distressing time for both of us, but my wife was able to contact the vet around 0800hrs and when he heard Leah howling in distress (because I'd had to leave her to go to the loo), he came all the way out to the house straight away!
He examined Leah carefully and we made a decision, based on his diagnosis and my gut-instinct, that she should be put down without further delay.
While the vet prepared the lethal injection, I said goodbye to my little friend and, after the vet had injected her, Li-Li gradually passed away with her head in my lap. My face was the last thing she saw. It was such a hard thing for me to do, but the prognosis was very poor and I couldn't let her suffer. I just couldn't!
I guess anybody reading this will think I'm just an over-sentimental fool and an idiot to boot....after all, it's only a dog....yes, but she was MY dog....for nearly twelve years and she'd suffered so much before she came to me....I guess I felt we had an empathy or something. She was a very special companion and, along with my wife and my children, was always there for me, especially during the darkest days of my illness....a time after I'd been forced to retire from teaching and had stared into the abyss. Leah had represented solid ground in a world of mental quicksand back then. She was always totally devoted and uncompromisingly loyal!
I'd like to thank the vet for his professionalism, his dedication and his kind words. I know it's a sometimes desperately sad part of his job that he finds extremely difficult to do.
It's late on Sunday evening now and I keep expecting to feel Leah by my feet where she likes to lie while I'm working on the computer. Meanwhile, Sam, our other dog, grows more and more confused and has started looking for her. He's getting lots of extra attention, but they'd been together for nearly twelve years as well and I know it's not easy for animals left behind in these situations either.
Leah will be cremated and we'll bury the ashes somewhere in the garden and plant a tree over them, as we did with our two previous dogs, Chloe and Amy. It will probably be a Ceanothus this time, simply because it has fantastic flowers and will attract lots of Bees and other insects during the Spring and Summer.
Dowdeswell Woods and Reservoir
I spent around eight hours poking about in Dowdeswell Woods and around the reservoir today. The weather started out with plenty of sunny periods, but by mid-afternoon the rain was belting it down. Nevertheless, I took lots of photographs and have uploaded a few of them here.
There is an abundance of Smooth Hawk's-Beard growing around the fringes of the reservoir. This one has one of those insects that I've always called "Pippi Long-Stocking Bugs" emerging and covered with a sprinkling of pollen ready to "hop" to the next flower-head. I've no idea what they're really called. This is a plant that doesn't usually flower until early June, when it becomes a great favourite with Bees and Flies.
Dowdeswell is a tremendously rich and fragile habitat for a huge variety of wildlife with many scarce and rare species of mammal, bird, invertebrate, wildflower and other plant species....the Lemon Slug and Yellow Archangel (both featured below) being good examples.
Like a great many wildflowers with the word "Common" in their name, the "Common Vetch tends to be anything but. However, it manages to persist in significant quantities at Dowdeswell. The plant was originally introduced to the UK from the continent and used as cattle food while the seed was popular as Pigeon food.
As well as catching a positive sighting of a pair of nesting Firecrest late in the day and in the rain (not the first time I've seen or heard them at Dowdeswell), I added two more wildflower species to my photo-catalogue. Unfortunately, my hopes of photographing nesting Pied Flycatchers came to nothing simply because they don't appear to have arrived yet!
Close-up shot of the unusual sepal-less and petal-less flower arrangement of the Wood Spurge. Eating any of the Spurges can make Horses and livestock very ill or even kill them because of the poisonous milky-white sap. On the other hand, generations of country folk have made use of the sap's slightly caustic properties to burn off warts and corns!
Dowdeswell Woods are barely two miles outside of Cheltenham, but due mainly to a complete lack of adequate parking, few people ever make the effort to visit and it remains an unspoiled jewel of a wildlife habitat. In fact, I saw only two people all day....the first was a young woodland management student there for the first time to assess the place for project work and the second was a local lady walking her dog. I guess that I've got the kind of job where you have to be able to stand your own company or go mad!
Always associated with woodlands, the Lemon Slug is a particularly scarce species and can be found in Dowdeswell Wood's more ancient areas. Modern woodland management methods would virtually guarantee the extinction of this normally mushroom-loving invertebrate in places like Dowdeswell! Like the two other Slug species shown below, this particular individual was encouraged to venture out into the open by the heavy rain. Note its two black antennae/tentacles just visible on the left, confirming it as a Lemon Slug.
One of my favourite water-birds, the secretive and dumpy Little Grebe with the conspicuous yellow gape may not be much bigger than a large Duckling, but has bags of personality. I counted no less than eleven Tachybaptus ruficollis on Dowdeswell Reservoir today....five nesting pairs and an odd one....this one in fact! The sexes are similar, but I'm guessing that this one is a male. He found it very difficult to remain near the water's edge due to being chased away in no uncertain terms by all the other males into whose territories he inevitably strayed. Consequently, he was confined more to the centre of the reservoir throughout the time I was watching.
Yellow Archangel....The story goes that it's because Red and White Dead-Nettles flower around the 27th of April (February these days) that they are dedicated to the Archangel Michael and are, therefore, sometimes referred to as Red and White Archangel. However, despite the fact that the Yellow version doesn't actually flower until May, it still shares the name "Archangel". This may or may not have something to do with the plant's reputation as a guardian against evil spirits and black magic disease, when it is also known as "Elf-Shot"! Yellow Archangel is very much a plant of woodlands and really quite scarce, particularly in the South.
Not normally flowering until July, this tall and stately Marsh Thistle is nearly two months ahead of its time and is one of the best indicators I've seen so far this year demonstrating that Nature has got herself into quite a muddle one way or another!
Black Medick is still cultivated as animal fodder in some parts of Europe, but, despite its name, has no particular medicinal properties. If however, you're someone who likes to buy a sprig of Shamrock on St. Patrick's Day, then you will most likely be buying the tri-foliate leaves of this plant instead, or possibly those of Hop Trefoil.
As the Woodland Bluebells fade away
The upright Bugle has its day
And marches 'cross the forest floor
Through Summer's gently opening door.
(Daisy W. aged 15)
I happen to think that's a terrific little verse, but then I guess I'm biased! It actually comes from a twelve-verse poem that my Mum wrote and called "The Wildflower Year" in which she mentions no less than twenty-five flower species and shows a profound understanding of both the plants themselves and their relationship to people.
I'm tempted to think that with a combination of my Mum's poetry, some of my flower photos (and family ones too from as far back as the 1920s), a sprinkling of country folk-lore and a few humour-infested family anecdotes, there might actually be a book in there somewhere. Maybe I could even call it "The Wildflower Year"! On the other hand....who the heck in their right mind would want to read it? Besides, although it wouldn't bother me too much if my own stuff was rejected (if nothing else, I'm realistic), it would bother me a lot if publishers didn't like my Mum's poetry!
It's not a good picture (it's not even in focus for goodness sake), but it does illustrate the Tree Slug's rather unusual defensive mechanism of producing copious amounts of foul-smelling watery mucus when threatened. This one seemed to literally deflate as fluid spread across the ground around it after I merely brushed it lightly with a twig!
It's odd to think that this primitive, but exquisite plant once shared the forests with such totally amazing creatures as Dinosaurs in a world so long ago that time has little meaning. Ironically, I also tend to think that they'll still be around after we Humans are as equally consigned to history's dustbin as the great Reptiles themselves. Sadly, I also believe that, for all our posturing and over-inflated sense of self-importance, we'll have been little more than a momentary, but extremely irritating speck of grit in Mother Nature's eye!
Inspirationally named the "Large Slug", this extremely common inhabitant of nearly all temperate garden and wilderness environments comes in basically two colours....the red and the black. The red/pinky/orangey versions are most prevalent in the South of the UK, but are replaced by more and more of the black type the further North you travel. Both forms are fairly common in the Cotswolds, which appears to be something of an "overlap" area.
Episyrphus balteatus is a very common Hover Fly that most people recognize because they are frequent visitors to their gardens where they love nothing more than to sip nectar from the flowers. In fact, they should always be welcomed by gardeners if only because, like Lacewings, Hover Fly larvae are avid aphid eaters.
I took this photograph thinking that this was a Tachinid Fly, but closer scrutiny suggests that maybe it's a Hover Fly of some sort. Whatever it is, it's a creature of stunning intricacy....even if it is a Fly!
Yet another mystery flower. This one was growing in the middle of a woodland walk, but was able to survive there probably because so few people pass that way. I expect that most of you are jumping up and down shouting the name of this delicate little plant at your computer screens, but the best guess that I can come up with is Bog Pimpernel....although Bog Pimpernel flowers are (usually) slightly pinker than these, they do actually close-up in the rain (as have the ones in the picture above), the stem/stalk structure is quite similar and the leaves (not shown) were "pimpernella" or "bipinella" from the Latin, meaning "two-winged! I dare say though, that it's probably something else altogether!
Viewed as something of a Jekyll and Hyde character, the small White Butterfly is a popular addition to any Summer garden as it flits from flower to flower. It's green larval caterpillar however, is widely despised for causing considerable damage to any member of the Cabbage family!
In the woodlands however, it's often members of the Lily family who become the object of their attention, including the Garlic-smelling Ramsons (above and below).
The Watcher Watched
They're not the first that I've seen this year, but, as I sat beside a lake somewhere not very far from somewhere else sometime earlier today, I watched around twenty screeching, excitable Swifts, newly arrived from wintering in tropical Africa, wheeling and dancing through the air above me. This is an amazing bird in almost every possible way....No species for example, spends as much of its life on the wing. It is quite capable of feeding, drinking, bathing, collecting nesting material, sleeping and even mating in flight....a sort of flight attendant with feathers! The Swift's young are equally unusual in that they are able to survive unattended for several days in a state of virtual starvation when food is in short supply or even managing to survive sudden and, for the chicks of most other species, catastrophic drops in temperature by simply entering into a state of torpor....a bit like students! I remember once witnessing an attempt by a fleet-winged Hobby to take a Swift in flight....however, the Swift caught sight of the predator at the very last moment and simply accelerated away from the danger, earning its common name in no uncertain terms...I can't think of any other bird that could do that!
Meanwhile, as I sat watching the aerially (is that a word?) acrobatic stunt-flying of remarkable Apus apus, I suddenly felt that I was being watched....Now, when you're out and about in the country-side, you can be certain that you're always being watched by something or other, but on this occasion the feeling was quite strong. Sitting up slightly, I glanced around and a sudden movement of the reeds nearby caught my attention....I peered into them and there it was....the beady little eye of a Reed Warbler staring out at me about three metres away! He'd been very quiet and had snuck up on me probably just to check me out. I grabbed my camera and squeezed off a few shots, including the one above until he eventually grew bored and flew off a little way to begin a long-winded rendition of his species charcteristically metronome-esque (I don't think that's a word!) "churr-churr-churr-chirruc-chirrucky" little song (see below)!
Most definitely not a very good shot of the Reed Warbler mentioned above, but the lesson to learn here is that if you want to get at least a reasonably good look at one of these furtive little birds (or virtually any other species of Warbler for that matter), then just sit yourself down near a reed-bed somewhere where you can hear them singing and just wait very quietly and patiently. Sooner or later, a bird will climb or fly to the top of a reed and sing its little heart out in full view to both you and the rest of the world!
Finally and mostly because of the Reed Warbler incident, I noticed what I think is a very early-flowering Musk Thistle (above). Now, I'm the first to admit that I find the identification of some Thistles to be very tricky at the best of times and I concede that I may well be wrong about this one being of the Musk variety. There were several clues however, that led me up this particular garden path....1, the flower heads were solitary and slightly drooping, 2, they were surrounded by spiny bracts and 3, they had a strong musky odour....I'm probably wrong though. On the other hand, if you like Butterflies and want to find lots of them in the country-side, then head for the nearest patch of thistles. Butterflies are very often attracted to them because the flowers of most Thistle species tend to be rich in nectar and many species of good old Lepidoptera just can't resist a quick slurp!
Well, who'd have ever thought it....Paisley, McGuinness, Blair and Ahern all sitting down in the same room and drinking tea together....well done gentlemen!
It's a bitter pill of ugly compromise far too difficult to swallow for just too many victims for the time being....but bitterness can't be allowed to cast its ugly shadow across the years of all the tough emotional re-building that lie ahead. After all, it's a whole new generation of young Irish who really matter now. They are the future of Northern Ireland and they deserve their chance to walk in the sun without fear of violence or intimidation from either the para-militaries or the security forces, so let's hope that, for the youngest at least, the indescribable horrors of forty years of "Troubles" will forever be confined to the pages of the history books!
I've just watched a programme on BBC2 about the dangers posed to both the physical and emotional health of fashion models determined to meet the increasing "size 0" demands of a seemingly uncaring and self-serving fashion industry.
The programme was presented by feature-article writer Dawn Porter, as she embarked on a one-woman quest to expose the very real health risks confronting young, impressionable girls seduced by such a ruthless industry! Meanwhile, in her efforts to fully understand exactly what such girls subject themselves to, Porter almost made herself ill by spending eight weeks surviving on just 500 calories per day while undertaking a rigorous exercise regime!
Her individual act of rebellion was, I thought not only rare these days, but reminiscent of the "women's rights" struggles of the 1960s, Porter used her hard-earned findings in an attempt to "re-educate" designers, clothes stores, fashion houses and the models themselves. However, as various representatives of the fashion industry (the few who had the bottle to speak to her that is) struggled to offer any kind of convincing or even lucid argument to justify risking the health and well-being of their model proteges, Porter herself, managed to produce a compelling medical and scientific argument against all things "size 0".
As for the best argument that the fashion officianados could come up with...."What problem? All our models are healthy. After all, it's in our best interest that they look as good as possible isn't it?"....Mmm maybe, but I couldn't help thinking that, for example, it's also in a Government's "best interest" that all of its soldiers are fit and healthy, yet that doesn't stop said Government from putting each of them at considerable risk by marching them all out onto the battlefield....Indeed, it's certainly not in any Government's "best interest" to have unhealthy soldiers, but the "process" of war inevitably produces many casualties, "best interest" or not....and, as Porter so capably pointed out, the "process" of fashion produces casualties of its own kind....at every level!
For this reason alone, all elements within the self-obsessive world of fashion must raise their collective heads from the sand-bucket of denial and irresponsibility and accept at least a portion of the blame.They must each begin to question their own particular methods....not to mention their motives!
Well done Ms. Porter....respect!
Logistics Corp Casualty
Following the detonation of a makeshift explosive device by enemy forces alongside a vehicle making up part of a re-supply convoy headed for the Basra Palace military base in Iraq more than a week ago, pvt. Kevin Thompson (21) of the Royal Logistics Corp, sustained severe injuries. He was flown back to the UK a few days ago for specialist treatment, but subsequently died of his wounds.
Big'uns and Littl'uns
There are so many insects and arachnids around at the moment....some of them have been around for weeks already. Here are three of the larger ones that I've encountered during the last couple of days....
The Four-Spotted Chaser has a wing-span of up to 8cm (this one was about that) and is so-called because of the four dark spots on the front edge at the middle of each wing. Some people refer to them as "Darters" due to their predominantly dart-stop-hover, dart-stop-hover flight patterns. Adult males are fiercely territorial creatures and are always up for a good head-on confrontation with others of their kind!
The good old May-Bug is actually one of the Chafer clan of super-Beetles. This particular specimen (a Common CockChafer) is the B-52 bomber of the UK insect world. About the size of a man's thumb, they are drawn irresistibly to light and have been known to crack the windscreens of speeding vehicles at night! The one in the picture above was drawn to the light in our dining-room and entered the house via the open patio-door only to fly straight onto my Daughter's head and entangle itself in her hair!
Let's just say that, up until that moment, I'd been enjoying a few "relaxing" moments in front of the TV, but suddenly my world was thrown into complete turmoil by a near hysterical fourteen year-old running into the sitting-room screaming something about a "Bat" in her hair! I asked her if she could just hang-on until the end of "Dr. Who", but she was being completely unreasonable and I had to miss the last few moments of the programme's typically excellent climax just to sort it out! Don't ever say I'm not a good Father!
The May-Bug by the way, escaped its ordeal completely unharmed. As for my Daughter however....well, she hasn't spoken to me since!
I daresay that most people would disagree, but the Common House Spider is an extremely useful ally to have around the home in our battle against many of the smaller, more anti-social pests and parasites! They will eat their own weight every couple of days in such harmful things as Silverfish, Weevils, various assorted Flies, Mosquitos and a host of other disease-carrying insects....and even some of the smaller Cockroaches! Without these Spiders, the average home would soon be knee-deep in very unpleasant little creepy-crawlies!
CHS's are highly efficient hunter/predators, actively seeking out their prey, chasing it down and carrying it off to eat in their rather untidy little funnel-type web homes hidden in some dark corner or other.
They are actually allowed to roam at will in my house and their nests are never disturbed. I even leave a length of thick cord dangling into the empty bath-tub so that they can climb out by themselves after inevitably falling in!
The female in the pictures above and below is probably about four years old, almost as big as the palm of my hand (even the dogs get nervous now) and is currently very heavily pregnant!
Finally, the tiny, tiny, incy-wincy little spiddy-spiders pictured below (each barely 2mm long) have hatched out on one of the glass panes of our bedroom window! They're too small for me to tell exactly what they are at the moment, but there are at least 500 of them! On the other hand, they might be either Common Garden Spiders or possibly Araneus quadratus....or what I've always called "Ball Spiders" (simply because of the large spherical shape of the adult's abdomen)!
Baby Common Garden Spiders, Ball Spiders or none of the above?
So the police are getting heavy with the animal rights extremists....well, it's about bl**dy time! Those idiots know next to nothing about either wildlife or the country-side and are continually hampering the work we do....and they don't even know it!
Just ask Lofty what he thinks about the more "pro-active" animal rights jerk-offs after four of them arrived at a site up North in the dead of night all dressed in black and balaclavas and within twenty minutes managed to completely unravel two months worth of 24/7 pains-taking surveillance work completed by him and Macca in very uncomfortable conditions in the dead of Winter!
They had been very close to a really significant, highly satisfactory and, above all, entirely lawful conclusion to their efforts, but then their "targets" were suddenly alerted to the fact that they were no longer acting as secretly as they thought due to the totally witless, non-thinking extremists blundering onto the scene! Needless to say, the long-term subjects of Lofty and Macca's sustained efforts subsequently melted away, never to return!
On a more positive note however, Lofty did eventually remind the four idiot extremists just why it is that they prefer to hide behind the more cowardly, non-confrontational-type activities of blackmail, telephone threats, corpse-napping and letter-bomb postage.... the latter of course, for the benefit of any innocent children and household pets who might just happen to be in the way when they're opened!
It's a pity really....such "driven" people could actually prove quite useful to us if they ever got their acts together and spent time learning to do a job the way it should be done! During an edgy conversation I had only a few weeks ago with a self-confessed animal rights "activist", we got onto the subject of "innocent victims" falling foul of some of their more extreme activities....I was constantly subjected to such quasi-military expressions as "acceptable collateral damage" and "in the line of fire", not to mention "for the greater good of all"....It was just as if they actually understood what such things were really all about!
Mmm....I just wish that such people were out in Baghdad right now, helping to clear the car-bombed streets of smashed and bloody corpses or retrieving body parts from rooftops! I'd like to see them coping with the screams of mangled women and children with no available or viable medication to ease their agony! I'd like to watch them as they struggled desperately to secure hospital transport for the shattered and barely living remnants of ordinary human beings and then I'd like them to hang around in the dust and heat for a couple of weeks while the rivers of blood congealed on the streets because the drains don't function any more and the stench makes you gag and the flies swarm in their billions!....I'd like to see them do it, I really would....and then I'd listen again to their arguments about "acceptable collateral damage", except that I don't think they'd be made with quite the same conviction somehow....Tossers! Stay out of our way in the country-side and let us get the bad guys our way!
Grenadier Killed in Garmsir
Simon Davison, of 3 Co. the Grenadier Guards has been killed in the town of Garmsir, Helmand Province, Afghanistan.
The GP Machine-Gunner was attacked at a checkpoint by around ten Taliban fighters and, tragically, sustained a single, but fatal gunshot wound!
Lower Slaughter Wagtails
Idyllic Lower Slaughter in the Spring.
Despite the less than attractive name, there are few, if any, prettier or more picturesque places than the Cotswold Slaughters in the Spring. Divided geographically into "Upper" and "Lower", the villages lie more or less adjacent to each other just a mile or two from bustling Bourton-on-the-Water.
Originally named Papaver cambricum (literally "Welsh Poppy"), this fantastic flower is as much a native of South-Western England as it is of Wales. A few gardens in Lower Slaughter are already sporting flowering Welsh Poppies (which I also photographed), but these particular ones were residing near the entrance to a farmer's field about a quarter of a mile outside the village. As a rule, they don't usually flower until sometime in June!
For me though, the Welsh Poppy symbolises everything that is magnificent about the Welsh country-side....from the Brecon Beacons to the Gower and Lynn Peninsulars, from the Pembrokeshire coastline to the Snowdonia National Park....I love them all!
I'd wandered into Lower Slaughter early on in the afternoon to test the chemical condition of the river water, check out the fish situation, photograph a few wildflowers (including the beautiful Welsh Poppies above), take note of the health and welfare of the local wildfowl and bird populations and generally keep an eye open for anything at all untoward. Everything turned out to be fine, though three things did catch my attention....
Tansy....Does anyone else remember "Tansy cake"? My Mum used to bake it at Easter, using finely chopped and dried Tansy leaves from the previous year as a flavouring....pretty much as you would use cinnamon or nutmeg. I recall that it was quite a strong taste! I also remember that my Gran used some sort of Tansy-originated "scent" (also made from the leaves I think) in her pantry to deter flies! Rats and Mice don't like it much either!
Tansy also has a well-established medicinal and cosmetic history....from being used to prevent miscarriages to its capacity as a mouthwash and even as an eye-lotion!
The name "Tansy" apparently derives from the Greek word for "immortality" and there are still a few old-timer country folk in the Cotswolds who drink a dram of it daily diluted in warm water, believing that it will give them longer and more active lives. I know for example, that 178 year-old Len Upton of Apperly village drinks it regularly and swears by it, but I'm not so sure personally!
On the other hand, I can't really say anything about that because I drink a glass of warm water with a table-spoon of cider vinegar (and another spoonful of local honey mixed-in every single day) to combat my occasionally re-curring bouts of the "Old Trouble", not to mention the gradual onset of the dreaded rheumaticals....and I swear that the warm water/vinegar/honey combo works a treat....even after the longest of my yomps in the worst of weathers! My Dad actually supped a spoonful of undiluted cider vinegar virtually every day of his life, believing that it "thinned the blood"!
First....a number of Tansy plants are already flowering on some of the grass verges leading into both villages. "Big deal ", I hear you say....except that they shouldn't really be flowering until July!
Three to five hundred-strong sun-basking shoals of Minnows occurred at various points along the shallow little river that meanders through the village.
Second....that most ubiquitous of little fishes, the humble Minnow, is already shoaling (in fact, I've seen them shoaling elsewhere over the past two weeks as well ). This is a phenomenon that doesn't normally occur until early Summer when small children all over the UK stand with tear-stained cheeks watching their Fathers monopolising the fishing net for what seems like hours at a time while constantly repeating the words "yes, all right son, be patient....You can have a go when I'VE caught one!"
The Old Mill
Third....a very busy pair of Grey Wagtails were taking turns to fly sortes for airborne insects over the river next to the Old Mill where they have chosen to build their nest. Judging by the bird's behaviour I'm pretty sure that at least one of their youngsters has hatched already and possibly one or two more emerged during the hour or so that I spent photographing them....at least judging by the increasingly excitable behaviour of both parents as the afternoon wore on!
Female Grey Wagtail....identifiable by her predominantly white throat (bib). Grey Wagtails have the longest tail and most energetic "wag" of all the Wagtails. In fact, it's more of a pumping action than a wag and tends to rock the bird's entire rear end! They also have the shortest legs of the Motacilla family.
It was also nice that lots of people stopped to chat and ask what exactly I was photographing....many of them were tourists visiting the Cotswolds from all over the world, including the USA, Canada, Japan, Australia and Barnstaple!
The Male Grey Wagtail showing an amount of black on his bib comparable to that found on birds in Winter plumage. His bib will actually turn completely black in the Summer or remain pretty much the same if this is only his first Summer.
No, I haven't seen one lately, but I've dug these two pictures of Avocets out of my archives because someone called Becky D has never heard of such a bird and doesn't know what one looks like. So there we are Becky....Avocets. It also happens to be the bird featured by the RSPB on their main logo....though I must say, I don't like the new design as much as the original!
The Pied Avocet....I took these photos in the Spring of 2005 on the Severn Estuary above Slimbridge, in fresh not saline water. It was a single pair of birds and I spent an awfully long time getting as close to them as I could to take as many photographs as possible ....I didn't have a digi-scope back then! Another shot is on the "Black and White" page.
I reported seeing them, but was told, rather condescendingly, that what I had seen was almost certainly Oyster-catchers and not to get too excited!
Similarly, In 1968, I had been strolling across Clifton Common somewhere near the river during my zoo lunch-break, when I suddenly spotted a Glossy Ibis flying close to the river bank! I immediately thought that one of my birds had somehow escaped and I ran back to the zoo in a panic, only to discover that both birds were present and correct!
Mystified, I reported the sighting to the powers that be in the stuck-up, know-it-all world of bird-recording later that evening by letter. Two days on and I received an extremely rude reply to the effect that, in future, I should refrain from wasting their valuable time and perhaps consider taking a course in basic bird identification! The fact that I looked after Glossy Ibis for a living seemed to completely escape these particular individuals and that was the last time I reported anything until the Avocet sighting in 2005....Apparently however, very little changes!
Rifleman Killed in Basra
An un-named British soldier has been killed by enemy forces after dismounting from his vehicle during a routine patrol in the Al-Ashar District of Basra, Iraq. He was a member of the 2nd Battalion, the Rifles.
Blue Tit Surprise!
The so-called "Sparrow terrace" placed above the living-room window at the front of my house. There are six completely separate compartments only accessed by the holes at the front of the box.
Due to the fact that House Sparrows choose persistently to nest within the lower roof space above our living-room window, I decided last year to put up a six-compartment nest-box "terrace" in the hopes that the Sparrows would prefer to set up home there instead. Unfortunately however, a pair of Blue Tits occupied one of the compartments almost immediately and the Sparrows missed out!
Above left....an adult bird exits from hole number three. Meanwhile, above right....a different bird arrives at hole number four with a beak-full of moss for use as nesting material.
It was no real surprise then, to discover that possibly the same pair of Blue Tits had re-installed themselves in exactly the same compartment this year! That was weeks ago and the birds are now on their second brood, having successfully reared and fledged four youngsters from the first.
Above left....an adult Blue Tit enters compartment number five, but it was her partner that came out a few moments later while she stayed inside. Above right....this bird is about to depart the nest-box, having arrived at hole number six with a caterpillar in its beak. His partner was elsewhere at the time also looking for food to bring back to the nest.
"So what?" I hear you ask....Well, I couldn't help noticing this morning that there seemed to be an awful lot of to-ing and fro-ing by what I assumed were the same two Blue Tits and I decided to investigate. After a few minutes, I realized that visits to the Terrace were by several different birds and not just the usual two! The terrace is very close to the drive and so I decided to sit in the car with my camera at the ready and wait to see what was going on....
One of the adult birds from nest-box compartment number five.
An hour later, I had taken lots of photographs and discovered to my amazement that not just one compartment was being used, but FOUR of them....by four separate pairs of Blue Tits! Gob-smacked isn't the word....I've never heard of such a thing! Blue Tits are usually very territorial and rarely tolerate the close proximity of other Blue Tits where their nesting sites are concerned!
I also made some observations concerning the number of times each compartment was visited during the hour and noted exactly what, if anything, the birds were taking to their nests. From this and by listening carefully when the adult birds returned to each nest, I was able to draw the following conclusions....
1....Four of the six available nesting compartments were occupied by four different pairs of adult birds.
2....By sound alone, it was possible to tell that compartments three and six contained young birds.
3....Compartment three contained very young chicks, possibly only a few hours out of their eggs.
4....Compartment six is home to much older youngsters, perhaps on the verge of fledging.
5....Compartment five contains eggs and is the nest-site of the original pair of adult birds who have already raised one brood this year.
6....Compartment four contains a nest still under construction. Eggs may have only just been laid or are possibly about to be laid.
7....I believe that this is conclusive proof that many birds simply DO NOT read all those wonderfully informative books on bird behaviour written by the experts.
Finally, when I pointed out to my daughter that four of the six compartments were currently occupied by all those Parus caeruleus, she simply asked "what's wrong with the other two then?" Mmm....So just why did the birds choose three, four, five and six to nest in and not one or two?
I received an e-mail from Helen R in Utah yesterday....she is a severe hay-fever sufferer and wanted to know if I had any advice with regard to old country-type remedies, as nothing she either obtained from her doctor or bought from her local drug-store seemed to do any good.
Well, I'm no medical practitioner and I'm glad to say that I don't suffer from this miserable affliction myself, but when I was a boy, I had a younger cousin called Robert who apparently had an allergy to pollen. Hay-fever was an unusual affliction, being far less common in those days, but as time went on, Robert's condition gradually got worse and worse.
My Gran standing in the doorway of her cottage sometime during the War. One of my aunts (Betty I think) is standing next to her, but I don't know who the children are, though the boy in the white shirt might be Robert's older brother, Tony. My Gran's garden was very large with a number of out-buildings, including a Barn (and resident Barn Owl). The garden was crammed full of a wide assortment of vegetables, fruit trees and fruit bushes. She also grew just about every herb known to man in either her outhouse or in the enormous greenhouse situated down near the river. I spent many happy hours here as a boy, pottering about in the garden and along the river bank.
Eventually, my aunt (Betty) took Robert to my Gran who offered a piece of old-fashioned country-woman's advice....
She told my aunt to visit Old-Man Steele who owned the farm up on the Gloucester road, not far from Gupshill Manor. Old-Man Steele also kept bees....lots of them....in more than a dozen hives. He sold their honey (complete with dead bees) for 6d a jar, if you brought your own jam-jar, or 9d if he had to provide one (he refunded the 3d if you returned the empty jar....washed and clean)! My Gran told my aunt to buy a couple of jars and that she was to give Robert a tablespoon of honey first thing in the morning and last thing at night.
So why give Robert that particular honey? Well, the point is, it was local honey....local to the immediate area. Robert's hay fever was caused almost certainly by pollen from local flowers, flowers pollinated by thousands of Old-Man Steele's bees.
The principle is quite simple really....a little bit like antibiotics...by consuming daily spoonfuls of local honey made by local bees from the pollen of local flowers over a protracted period of time, you eventually build up a resistance to the effects of hay fever....and it works! It worked for Robert....his symptoms gradually disappeared and, by the following Summer he hardly presented with any symptoms at all!
So Helen, I've added this "remedy" to my website just in case other pollen sufferers might like to try it. I hope you don't mind. The effects aren't instantaneous....resistance is built up slowly over time and the honey you consume MUST be absolutely local. It's no good using honey you bought from the supermarket....it just wont work! Nor will it be any good for those with allergies to such things as dust mites, feathers, cats, perfume, hard work, etc....though I'm sure that my Gran would have had old-fashioned remedies for those as well....especially the latter!
I was sorry to hear today of the death of England's Alan Ball. He was one of football's greats and a devoted family man. The demise of his wife three years ago had been a terrible blow for him to endure and his own death today from a heart attack at the comparatively young age of 61 means that at least they may well be together once again....who knows?
I remember how impressed I was by Alan Ball when, as the youngest member of the England squad and barely two years older than me, he lifted the World Cup trophy high above his head following the 1966 final....Good memories.
Kingsman Alan Joseph Jones (20) of the 2nd Battalion, the Duke of Lancaster's Regiment was killed when his platoon came under intense small-arms fire from insurgent forces in the Al-Ashar District of Central Basra yesterday. I understand that Kingsman Jones had acted selflessly by adopting a slightly exposed position from the top of a Warrior armoured vehicle in an attempt to provide "minimi" suppressive covering fire for his comrades, all of whom escaped injury as a direct result of his action.
Mum's Birthday (she would have been 81)
St. George's Day
Back from Devon
Beautiful Torcross in South Devon, with the freshwater Slapton Ley on the left-hand side of the road and saltwater Start Bay on the right. The Ley is an incredibly rich and biologically diverse natural environment and amongst the huge variety of species I observed and took photographs of this week were such things as Honey Buzzards (newly arrived from wintering in tropical Africa), Northern Wheatear (usually as they made landfall on Slapton Sands), Summer Snowflake, Swamp Spiders, early Field and Sand Digger Wasps, plenty of Hornets, Orange-Tip, Holly Blue and Speckled Wood Butterflies and a fair bit of flowering Dove's-Foot Crane's Bill which is not so common further North.
I've been away for a week doing ranger stuff in Torcross, Devon, on the South coast. The weather's been fantastic and I've taken lot's of photos. There will be a full account soon elsewhere on this site, but there are a few other things, mostly from earlier in the week that I'd like to mention....
Troops Killed in Maysan
The first is to pay tribute to the two British soldiers killed in the Southern Iraq Province of Maysan earlier this week. They were Cpl. Ben Leaning (24) and Trooper Kristen Turton (28), both of the Queen's Royal Lancers. They both received fatal injuries as they returned from a routine patrol when their Scimitar armoured vehicle was targeted by enemy forces.
I would also like to offer my condolences and heart-felt sympathies to the families and friends of the victims of the Virginia Tech shootings in the USA and, instead of offering the more military-orientated Poppies to remember them by, I decided to set aside a couple of hours while in Devon to find and photograph some exquisite little flowering Forget-Me-Nots. I hope they'll do instead....and be slightly more appropriate.
Also while I was away, my wife was quick to notice the return of several House Martins to the Close on 18th April....including the pair from the nest built under the eaves outside my son's bedroom window. This is the earliest yet that any House Martins have returned to the Close since I began recording in 1994....when the first nest was built! There are currently seven birds flying around the various houses and now, I'm pleased to say, the nest outside my daughter's bedroom window has also been re-occupied (for up-to-date details of my on-going House Martin survey, see the "Survey" page on www.wildliferanger.co.uk)
Finally, I was delighted to discover when I returned home yesterday, that a pair of Dunnocks are building a new nest amongst the slow-growing conifers and miniature firs at the end of the new shed, barely three metres from the dining-room patio doors! Interestingly, The new nest has been placed alongside the old one built last year by possibly the same pair of birds. I shall try to get a picture of the birds soon.
An apparently accidental collision just north of Baghdad, Iraq, between an RAF Puma helicopter and a second Puma used by the British Army has resulted in the deaths of two UK servicemen and serious injury to a third!
The larger bird-table at the top of my garden has a spacious nest-box area built into the roof cavity, but it is usually ignored by nesting birds....probably because the table is a focus of so much activity throughout the day as scores of birds visit it to feed! Perhaps it takes the more aggressive and assertive nature of the average Great Tit to ensure that it gets used at all!
With the Sparrow-Terrace Blue Tits already on their second brood of the year, "Uppity Bill" and his Missus sharing egg-sitting duties in the nest-box behind the Buddlea. more Blue Tits in the box behind the top shed for the second year running, a pair of Wrens not far from them and "DT" getting totally apoplectic while trying to see-off any hapless trespassers (including me) who dare to venture anywhere near his new family in the big fir tree near the oil-tank, it's all go in my garden at the moment!
These tireless little birds seem to have collected enough moss, dried grass and other bits and pieces to make at least three nests....they even use the fluff I collect from the tumble-drier and place in a small wire cage on the table!
During the last few days however, a pair of Great Tits have taken up residence in the roof cavity nest-box of the large bird-table at the top of my garden! It may well be the same pair that nested just a couple of metres away from there last year in the nest-box hidden within the branches of an adjacent fir tree, but I'm not certain. It's only the second time that this nest-box has been used during the eight years that I've had the bird-table and it was by Great Tits the first time as well.
"Uppity Bill" (above) and "Louise" (below) are not the best of neighbours for the new Great Tit family to have to cope with, so I wont be topping-up the food trays on the main bird-table for a while.
Anyhoo, there's been an awful lot of to-ing and fro-ing by the GTs just lately, with both sexes carrying large beak-fulls of nesting material into the nest-hole throughout the day. Meanwhile, for the sake of a quiet life (if nothing else), I've decided not to replace any of the remaining bird-food still on the table for the time being to discourage the usual suspects from harassing their new neighbours!
"Louise"....not about to kept away from her beloved seed tray by a couple of squatter Great Tits as long as there's any food to be had!
Royal Anglian Fatality
Chris Gray (19) from the 1st Battalion the Royal Anglian Regiment was mortally wounded during a small-arms fire-fight with insurgents in the Helmand Province of Southern Afghanistan today. Two other soldiers from the same unit were slightly wounded.
This was an apparently protracted and, at times, extremely fierce engagement with a much larger and heavily armed Taliban force during a routine patrol and illustrates, not only what an incredibly difficult job British troops are doing over there, but how well trained and disciplined they must be not to sustain even greater casualties than they actually do!
Two wildflowers to notice in April are Alehoof (Ground Ivy) and Slender Speedwell. Alehoof (that's what I've always known it as) is a bitter-tasting plant used for hundreds of years to flavour beer (hence the name). Like its Wound-Wort relatives, It also has certain healing qualities and, according to the incredibly knowledgeable John Akeroyd in his "Encyclopaedia of Wildflowers", was taken by early colonists to the New World where it still survives in various locations in New England.
Only introduced to the UK in the early 1800s, Slender Speedwell soon escaped into the wild to become a familiar and quite elegant addition to our native species along river banks, in churchyards and on village greens.
Name that Flower!
This is when I know that I really ought to be sticking with birds....I noticed the beautiful head of flowers (above) growing from a single-stemmed plant along the White Way between Withington and Cirencester. Is it a garden escape?
Kurt Vonnegut Dies
I was sorry to hear about the death of the 84 year-old American author Kurt Vonnegut from irreparable brain injuries following a fall several weeks ago. For what it's worth, I have always included his 1960s science fiction novel, "Cat's Cradle" in my own personal top twenty all-time favourite books.
Vonnegut is probably best known for his out-standing, semi-autobiographical work, "Slaughterhouse 5", based on his own experiences as a prisoner of war during the Allied revenge-orientated saturation bombing of Dresden. He was one of only seven captive American servicemen to survive the raid by sheltering in the basement of a meat packaging factory called "Slaughterhouse 5". In the days following the raid, Vonnegut was forced by the Nazis to collect and dispose of hundreds of the estimated 30,000 predominantly civilian bodies gradually decomposing across the city. He recalled that there were far too many to actually bury and the vast majority had to be incinerated using flame-throwers!
This soul-shattering experience, together with his exploits as a reconnaissance scout for the US 106th Infantry Division during the 1944 Ardennes Offensive, nicknamed the Battle of the Bulge (winning the Purple Heart along the way), continued to affect Vonnegut profoundly throughout his life and surfaced from time to time in at least seven of his books.
Although I believe that he actually retired from writing in 2005, Vonnegut's death still represents a very sad loss to the literary world.
It would appear that some of my replies to many of the e-mails I get are not getting through to their intended targets! They are apparently "bouncing" back or are simply vaporising in the ethernet! Consequently, I'm not entirely sure who has or who hasn't received my responses, but here are a few of the ones I'm fairly certain didn't make it to their destinations....
I have no wish to sound like a certain afternoon Radio 2 presenter, but Bryan Haylett contacted me a while ago to say that he'd enjoyed the bird photos on my sites and the humour as well. I think that Bryan probably forgot to take his "special" tablets that day. However, Bryan has actually just begun putting together a terrific little website of his own based on the flora and fauna of Coatham Marsh. Coatham is a real gem of a Nature reserve at Warrenby near Redcar in Cleveland and a favourite place too of one of our other rangers. He is utilizing many of his own excellent photographs of both the wildlife and scenic views of the Marsh itself and his site is a worthy testament to one man's passion for both a beautiful place and his photography. You should be able to visit Bryan's blogsite at www.coatham-marsh.blogspot.com and then get a link to his website from there.
Justin D of Chiswick e-mailed last week wanting to know if I could offer any advice concerning walking boots. He wants to buy a pair for a rambling holiday in the Lake District later this year and doesn't want his feet to suffer! Well Justin, I'm no expert and finding the right pair of walking boots is a very tricky and personal undertaking, but I will say this....
1....Don't be swayed by all the fancy names, logos and expensive price tags! A good pair of boots will feel right from the moment you first try them on whether they cost £30 or £300. If there's the slightest doubt in your mind about how comfortable they are, then forget it and try some others!
2....Remember, how "good" a pair of boots might be isn't defined by either the manufacturer's logo, outrageous over-pricing, NASA tested sweat-absorbent linings, triple-stitched water-proof seams or the enthusiasm of the assistant in the shop you buy them from....It will however, be determined by the number of blisters you DON'T have after a fifteen mile trek and whether or not you can still actually walk the following day!
3....Obviously, ALL boots have to be broken-in so give yourself plenty of time to do exactly that. In other words, don't buy a pair of boots on a Friday and go off on your holiday the following day! Break them in gently over time....wear them to work and change when you get there. Wear them to walk the dog. Wear them about the house. Get them wet and muddy a few times. Get used to them fully before wearing them for really long treks. Most importantly, look after them....treat them like you would a beautiful woman....in other words, clean them carefully, wash them tenderly, rub them down thoroughly, caress them lovingly and then give them a good old-fashioned dubbin!
4....As for recommending a particular brand....my own "best" pair are my precious Gortex "Zamberlons" and I'm very pleased with them, but that doesn't mean that Zamberlons would be ok for you. It's outrageous that many UK soldiers currently serving in Iraq and Afghanistan find their general issue boots to be woefully inadequate and feel obliged to spend their own money on replacements, such as the outstanding Han-Wags so beloved of our enigmatic Special Forces! Han-Wags are very expensive however and, although available via the internet, still need to be tried-on before purchasing!
Oh well, whatever you do Justin, take your time finding the most suitable boots for you personally, even if it's a pair for £30 from your local market. Above all, don't be techno-talked into spending £200 on designer-label footwear that may look the part and last for years, but leave you practically needing foot surgery after a leisurely stroll round the park!
Fifteen year-old Jake S from Norwich wants to know how to get into zoo-keeping and how best to prepare for such work....Well Jake, zoo-keeping has changed an awful lot in many ways since my own time as a keeper back in the 1960s. In those days the emphasis was on providing "entertainment" for the public and the average zoo still felt obliged to provide such things as elephant rides and chimps tea-parties! Now of course, things have improved considerably with the priorities geared more towards conservation and species preservation. The public still need to feel they're getting value for money however and a great deal of effort is made by the best zoos to educate and inform their visitors while getting them to feel more "involved" through such schemes as "adopt a Panda" or "sponsor a Condor breeding programme".
Some things never change though and the average keeper still has to get up at the crack of dawn to check the welfare of the animals in his or her care, prepare countless exotic and often stomach-churning meals, clean and disinfect dozens of cages and enclosures on a virtually daily basis, monitor the health of a myriad species, deal with any animal-related problems from amorously confused and keeper-obsessed Pigmy Hippos to psychotically deranged Gerbils and, above all, be generally prepared to muck-in, muck-out and shake it all about wherever you're needed at the time (which is usually three places at once!)....and whatever you do, don't forget the infinite needs and demands of the great British public who, in their own eyes at least, you are merely there to serve!
As for the wages....they're quite good really....provided that you don't want to eat more than twice a week....or have a roof over your head....or expect any kind of a social life (not that you'd have the energy for one....let alone the time)!
Don't let me put you off though Jake....I loved every minute of my time as a keeper. It's the most rewarding thing I've ever done and I wouldn't change any part of it! It was a physically tough and mentally demanding profession with a huge amount to learn. The hours were hopelessly long (fourteen a day on average), holidays were few and far between and the money was totally crap....but none of that really mattered because the rewards came from elsewhere....I once sat up and nursed a desperately poorly King Penguin for five nights in a row and still worked full shifts during the day. The bird actually survived and was successfully reunited with its pals a few days later....and I was allowed an afternoon off!
I guess that zoo jobs are much more sought after and hard to come by these days, though I'm not sure whether they have the same kind of apprenticeship system that they used to. My advice to you as a fifteen year-old, would be to study extra-hard at school and do GCSEs in subjects like biology, English and maths. Meanwhile, read everything you can about ALL types of animals and their environments. Learn about how zoos operate and how they are managed. Visit wildlife parks and zoos as often as you can and talk to the keepers. If there's a zoo near you (eg. Kessingland), then try to get a part-time job there or do voluntary work if necessary. Be prepared to do the most menial of things not always directly related to the animals themselves....it will all look really good on your CV. Get yourself involved with local environmental projects (the WWT and RSPB are always looking for volunteers to help out on their reserves). Show willing, appear keen, talk to people, be helpful, be polite and NEVER complain about anything.
When it finally comes to applying for a job, then apply anywhere and everywhere....don't be too fussy. Experience is what you're after not glamour! Write to the curators and directors at every zoo and park in the book, NOT JUST A FEW and when they write back to tell you there are no vacancies, write to them again....tell them you'll wait....then write yet again a few weeks later to tell them you're still waiting. Visit their zoo. Ask to talk to the people in charge and impress them with your enthusiasm and your knowledge without appearing pushy and know-it-all. Ask intelligent questions and pay close attention to the answers!
It's all down to you Jake. Lots of youngsters these days expect employers to come knocking on their door, but the world doesn't work like that....short of winning the Lottery, you only get out of life what you're prepared to put in and, for you, that means starting NOW! Forget "MTV" and "Hollyoaks"....watch every wildlife documentary on TV instead, read every Natural History book in your local library, use the internet wisely, get your parents to subscribe to wildlife magazines, join the WWT or the WWF (and I don't mean wrestling!), learn all you can about conservation and animal welfare....eat, sleep and breathe all of the above 24/7! Build yourself an impressive CV that will make any prospective employer sit up and take notice!
Finally, ask yourself if this is something that you really, really want to do....It's not enough to have a liking for little fluffy animals and a tendency to well-up when you watch Bambi. Zoo-keeping is a hugely demanding VOCATIONAL career and there will be plenty of times when you'll wonder why the heck you ever took it on. If, on the other hand, you are absolutely certain that it's what you want to do, then I wish you the very best of luck....but bear in mind that you'll have to create most of that luck for yourself!
I Just Don't Believe It!
The fifteen Royal Marines and Royal Navy personnel have finally and, thankfully been released by the Iranians. Great....let's all learn from the unpleasant little incident and move on. Yet what's this I hear....it appears that those very same soldiers and sailors are being allowed (by the MoD no less) to sell their stories to the highest bidder....and they're likely to make a fortune out of it!
Will someone please tell me what the heck is happening in the world today? This would never have happened thirty years ago! So you were taken prisoner, probably roughed-up a bit, paraded on TV, coerced and spoken to quite harshly and maybe tricked into thinking you were probably going to die! Don't they prepare you for these things in basic these days? Well, you're in the military and sh*t happens! You were expected to take the rough with the smooth when you put your scribbly little X on the dotted line and took the Queen's shilling!
This totally stinks of insidious political interference....someone getting the MoD to allow one or more of you to tell the public all about what you went through because the Government can't do it themselves for whatever reason (but mostly so they wont look so bad) and then, at some point soon thereafter, probably re-applying the gag!
Where the Hell has common self-decency and any sense of personal honour gone, let alone loyalty to your Regiment? What's happened to the need for the armed forces to be above and beyond such things as individual gain....if only because of the risk of endangering the lives of others further down the line? Ok. when you're back in civi-street, fair enough, sell your story to whoever you want....if you can find anyone who'll still give a damn, but you're not there yet and you've got the name of your Regiment and your Ship's company to uphold....It's all very sordid, extremely tacky and fundamentally wrong!
I'll tell you what really p*sses me off about this though....it's all those poor b**tards coming back from Iraq and Afghanistan just lately in pine boxes and who get nothing more than a one-paragraph mention on the six o'clock news and then diddly-squat! It's the hundreds and hundreds of maimed and mutilated service personnel returning to the UK totally un-recognized, only to find that the frickin' Government and the NHS have turned their backs on them! Well, think about it....you eight Marines at least....You reckon you're going to pool 10% of your fortunes and donate it to the Armed Forces Benevolent Fund....well whoopy-do! How about showing the kind of decency and self-respect that made your Regiment the greatest and the best in the world....HOW ABOUT DONATING ALL OF IT....and then how about the AFBF turning round and saying "bo***cks, keep your dirty money, we don't want it"!
Don't let the rot set in....You MUST keep the British public on board. The poor sods still out there need all the help and sympathy they can get! Set a good example. Remember....there are two types of Marines....submarines and Royal Marines and they both carry sailors....now prove it!
Gone to the Dogs
The Sweet Violet, the true violet of Spring, was used by the Victorians as both a love token and a funeral tribute. Most commonly found in its white form, It can occur in a variety of colours....watch out for the apricot variety, it's very rare!
It's interesting (to me anyway) how prolific the white relative of the old Dog Violet....the Sweet Violet....is this year. I've seen patches of it in a number of places over the last week or so and I'd say that it's almost as common as its little bluey-purpley cousin.
Meanwhile, back at the asylum, I heard on the news today that the Government wants to introduce the teaching of "Britishness" in our education policy-beleaguered primary schools! I'm not entirely sure what that would involve exactly, but I'm willing to bet that the more right-wing Nationalist elements in society will be rubbing their hands in gleeful anticipation of what it might mean for them....Talk about going to the dogs!
Hang on a minute though....how about we forget all about "Britishness" and try teaching some elementary English and mathematics skills instead? Then you never know, in a few years time, we might end up with a whole bunch of kids leaving school who know the difference between a noun and a verb, can spell words of more than one syllable, are able to do addition, subtraction and long division and who might even have mastered a few basic multiplication tables!
If only that were so....then perhaps I wouldn't be subjected to the kind of situation I found myself in recently in a well-known electrical goods retailers when I tried to pay for a pack of AAA batteries....They cost £3-49p and I tried to pay for them with a fiver. The somewhat dour teenage assistant scanned the batteries and the correct price was displayed, but, unfortunately, the amount of change that I should be given failed to appear below the price. The youth looked at me slightly mystified and said that he'd have to call the supervisor. As the till was already open, I asked if he might not simply give me the £1-51p and I'd be on my way. "How d'you know it's £1-51p?" he asked and pressed a buzzer for assistance. "I worked it out in my head" I replied and he looked at me suspiciously. At this point, what looked like a twelve year-old child dressed in a supervisor's uniform approached the pay-desk and asked if there was a problem. The assistant explained about the scanning failure and that I was trying to guess how much change I should be given. I said it wasn't a guess and that it was a simple calculation. "Yeah, right" was the equally simple reply and the supervisor took out her pocket calculator. A few moments later and after checking the answer twice, she turned to me and, with a growing sense of awe said "you're right....It is £1-51p! How did you know....Have you bought them before?" "I guess I must have" I replied as the youth finally handed me the correct change and I was able to leave.
Majestic, lightning quick, beautiful to behold in flight and a staggeringly efficient hunter, Falco peregrinus has, for centuries, been the falconer's favourite. I watched spellbound today as I ate my lunch while sitting against a Cotswold stone wall as this wonderful wild male bird despatched a Woodpigeon in flight barely a hundred metres from me!
The best things nearly always happen when you least expect them and to witness a wild Peregrine Falcon "take out" its airborne prey is one of the most special of all wildlife events. As sudden as it was unexpected, this beautiful male Falcon stooped out of the sun from hundreds of feet above a passing flock of half-a-dozen Woodpigeon, stunning its chosen victim with a glancing blow from its razor-sharp talons as it sped on by at a speed probably close to two hundred miles an hour!
Barely managing to pull out of its head-long dive before it hit the dirt, the raptor arced in a graceful loop-the-loop to return to its luckless prey now fluttering helplessly on the ground no more than a hundred metres from me!
By the time I'd crept to within fifty metres of the progressively gruesome scene unfolding in the middle of the large field into which the Pigeon had fallen, the Peregrine had scattered feathers in all directions and was devouring the flesh as quickly as it could. Thankfully I managed to get off at least a couple of, albeit blurry, heat-shimmery shots with the only (and woefully inadequate) camera I had with me (typical!) before a raiding party of three Ravens forced the Peregrine to retreat with its prey to the relative safety of a small covert about a quarter of a mile away!
I've only witnessed such a spectacle twice before....the first time in the 1970s, from a window of a train crossing the Tamar Bridge (see "Slices" at www.wildliferanger.co.uk) and again, about two years ago from a window over-looking the city centre at the Coventry Leisure Centre complex where my daughter was competing in a swimming gala. The victims were pigeons on both occasions.
Fifteen and Four!
On the very same day that the "fifteen" have at last arrived home from Iran (I'm so pleased for their families) and I can finally feel that it's wise to even mention them here, there are, sadly, four other British service personnel who haven't been quite so lucky....
In a ferocious rocket and road-side bomb attack upon an army patrol in the Hayaniya District of North-West Basra, Iraq, a Warrior armoured vehicle was targeted and four soldiers were killed, two of whom were women! A civilian interpreter was also killed! They were as follows....
2nd Lt. Joanna Dyer (25) of the Intelligence Corps, attached to the 2nd Battalion the Duke of Lancaster's Regiment. She had passed out of Sandhurst only last year and was a close personal friend of Prince William who was commissioned on the very same day as Jo Dyer in an Academy ceremony attended by the Queen.
Corporal Kris O'Neill of the Royal Army Medical Corps.
Private Eleanor Duglosz also of the Royal Army Medical Corps.
Kingsman Adam James Smith from 2nd Battalion Duke of Lancaster's Regiment.
A Kuwaiti civilian interprer was also killed and a fifth soldier seriously injured.
Kept awake for much of a bitterly cold January night by the often torrential rain pounding onto my basha, I eventually got bored and took this spooky shot holding the camera at arm's length through the zip opening of my bivvi-bag. It reminds me of lightning a bit....which was just about the only type of weather that I wasn't actually subjected to!
Pristine, pure and definingly virginal....No, I'm not talking about the "Sugababes"....but who may very well be exactly that (other pop groups are currently available)! I am in fact, talking about good old "British snow"....that all-too rare commodity which, these days, can whip an entire Nation into a frenzy of "snow fever" at the drop of a snowflake....Unofficial days off work, crippled transport systems, panic-buying down the local supermarket, an excuse to finally get to use that big, shiney 4x4 to get the kids to school (only to find that the schools are closed in case someone throws a snowball and everyone gets sued)! Who needs the good old days after all, when everyone just got on with their lives after a major blizzard and even when the stuff had been around for a month or two or three! Who needs a time, long ago when parents used to walk their little Johnny down to the nearest A&E after he slipped on the ice at school and broke his arm (because he's stupid)....instead of down to the nearest solicitor's? Hey-ho!
Ok, so what if I did press the shutter by accident....it happens to be one of the better pictures of me. On the other hand, I didn't realize that my boots needed cleaning so badly!
No concept of war, no criminal tendencies, no corruption, no foul and heinous acts of violence visited upon others of their kind....and definitely no "Big Brother"....and we think WE'RE superior!
St. Eadburgha's Church between Snowshill and Broadway is one of my all-time favourite Cotswold buildings
I'm not a religious person, I don't attend church and I have little or no time for any of the more zealous religious groups or control-orientated denominations. I try to be a reasonably good person and I was raised to believe in and to uphold a particular set of basic social values. I have tried with a good measure of success (I believe) to instill those values in my own children. However, I also believe that those self-same values are of less and less importance to the majority of individuals in subsequent generations and I sometimes struggle to understand a world in which greed, the obsessive pursuit of wealth and the desperate fixation with "celebrity" has completely out-stripped any sense of meaningful social responsibility and the real-world physical, emotional and spiritual needs of us all.
If I find empathy with any kind of Spiritual figure at all, then it would probably be the pagan "Green Man" of the woods and forests, but I guess I really prefer the notion of a "Mother Nature"-type figure ....a sometimes benevolent, sometimes harsh arbiter of natural-world justice who will one day judge us all if we continue to treat our planet the way way we do!
Having said all that, I still find time to appreciate many of the more "physical" attributes of conventional religious devotion made manifest throughout the ages....at least with regard to our more ancient and iconic stone churches. The Cotswolds boast some of the most beautiful country village churches in the UK and I occasionally like to photograph them....
An architypal Cotswold church, St. Eadburgha's is about as picturesque as they get
Above and below.....Here, In the "Valley of the Boars", the Norman Knight, Sir Robert D'Oilgi is generally thought to have been responsible for the construction of the delightful All-Saints Church at Turkdean on the site of what was probably an 8th Century Saxon church. Turkdean (from the Welsh "Twrch" meaning "Boar" and The Saxon "Dene" meaning "Valley") is itself an ancient village with more than its own slice of Roman history and it was here that Channel 4's "Time Team" undertook their first ever "live broadcast" archaelogical dig on a hitherto undiscovered Roman Villa way back in August 1997.
Cirencester's Monday Market goes about its time-honoured business beneath the magnificent splendour of the Parish Church of John the Baptist (one of the largest chuches in the UK). Its enormous tower and three-storey porch were built circa 1500, though the site itself dates back many centuries before that. Frequently playing host to the Choir Society and the venue for many outstanding music concerts, Cirencester Parish Church is one of the Cotswold's great "wool" chuches, having been built out of the prosperity emanating from the region's wool trade.
The Saxon Church of St. Mary in Bibury boasts a stained glass window designed by Karl Parsons in 1927 and which was featured on the 1992 Royal Mail Christmas stamp set.
The pretty little church of St. Swithin in the village of Quenington was originally dedicated to the Virgin, but was probably re-dedicated some time during the Dissolution. Interestingly, a depiction of Christ's Coronation of the Virgin is to be found in the south doorway.
The Holy Rood Church in the village of Daglingworth lies in the beautiful Duntisbourne Valley to the west of the A417 Cirencester to Gloucester road. This is outstanding rambling country and an area packed with superb wildlife. On the very day I took this photograph, not only did I find myself suddenly amidst a stampeding herd of a dozen or more Roe Deer startled by something they were far more afraid of than they were of me, but I saw a Goshawk (no jesses attached) heading east and at speed across the Bathurst Estate! As for the church, it happens to be home to one of the tremendously important "Shrines of Art in England"....several pre-conquest, Anglo-Saxon sculptures depicting Christ Ascendant and Enthroned, an allegorical St. Peter dressed as a tonsured priest and holding up a key to Heaven, and two Roman soldiers....Longinus with the spear and Stephaton with the sponge on a stick. These are works so historically important it's beggars belief! Incidentally, today is Easter Sunday and it seemed like an appropriate day to mention the Holy Rood's sculptures.
Pretty enough, but most of the Church of St. Mary in world-famous Lower Slaughter was rebuilt in 1867 and only a few arches and other bits and pieces seem to remain from the original 13th Century building. More interestingly to me, the hedgerows around Lower Slaughter are alive with extremely photogenic Redstarts in the Summer and the River Eye which runs through the village, is the best place for Kingfishers that I've ever encountered (even in the old days)....I once counted eleven individual Alcedo atthis, including three on a single branch, within one four mile section of the river! It was also on the River Eye that I saw my last Dipper in the Cotswolds in 1991. Prior to that, I had only known of solitary birds on the Coln near Woodbridge!
The Church of St Oswald sits on a hill over-looking the beautiful Cotswold village of Compton Abdale, not far from Chedworth Roman Villa and slightly off the beaten track. Compton Abdale however, like picturesque Cold Aston, tends for the most part, to escape the yearly invasion of camera-pointing and cheque-book-wielding visitors....possibly because there are no shops and very few places to park. On the other hand, if you are desperate to spend your hard-earned cash and feel an inexplicable desire to share your day's outing with hundreds of like-minded people, then try heading for the equally exquisite, but far more tourist-orientated villages of Bourton-on-the-Water, the Slaughters or Bibury.
St. Peter's Church overlooks the main street running through the centre of Winchcombe and is a large, imposing building dating back to (I think) the 16th Century.
St. Michael's Church in Dowdeswell....I'm far too unforgiving and screwed up by events in my past to ever want to be a church-goer myself or even to call myself truly Christian....at least not without indulging in some major hypocrisy (in the Oxford English dictionary definition of the word)! However, I did always enjoy watching my children perform in a succession of primary school-orientated Christmas carol services within the confines of this quaint little local church when they were a lot younger.
Above and below, the Church of St. Andrew in Chedworth nestles more than 600 feet above sea-level in a wooded valley less than a mile from the famous Romano-British villa. Chedworth itself, has a current population of around 850 and is an ancient village actually mentioned in the Doomsday Book. Meanwhile, St. Andrews is of probably 15th Century, late-Norman origin.
St. Michael's and All Saints Church in Withington. A beautiful little village church, St. Michael's however, was recently the victim of some quite shocking vandalism when an unknown person (or persons) completely trashed the interior of the church, damaging furnishings, smashing the font and breaking stained-glass windows! Needless to say, this has caused a great deal of upset, not only within the village itself, but throughout the entire County and beyond. Gloucestershire churches have always been open to the general public for worship purposes or a quick looksee during the day, but the kind of moronic behaviour displayed at Withington must surely cast a shadow over the future of, not only unsupervised public access to such special places of worship, but to any kind of public access at all outside of normal church services!
No tower and no steeple....I guess this little parish church of St. James the Great in Stoke Orchard never attracted the attentions of a local landowner or wealthy merchant-type with a desperate desire to "buy" their way into Heaven and absolve themselves of all sins by sponsoring any additional building work. Funny though, I quite like it exactly the way it is....and yes, I am a cynic! Worthy of note within the church itself however, is the now faded and rather fragmented medieval wall-painting depicting St James emerging triumphant from his encounter with the pagan enchanter Hermogenes.
The Church at Burford from the SSSI
Burford's church of St. John the Baptist was completed in 1475, and has a very violent and bloody history! It continues however, to be a tremendously important building to the community it serves.
The solid-looking church of St. Barnabus at Snowshill exudes a tremendous sense of strength and permanence!
The church of St Edward is right in the centre of bustling and picturesque Stow-on-the-Wold and was built between the 11th and 15th centuries. A stone in the churchyard commemorates the last battle of the English Civil War with was fought in Stow in 1646.
It's thought that there has probably been a church of some sort or other on the site of St. Lawrence in Bourton-on-the-Water since around 790 AD, but it wasn't until 1110 AD that the first Norman stone church was constructed. Much of St. Lawrence's was rebuilt in a Neo-Classical style in 1784, while the surviving 12th Century chancel is said to hide the entrance to a legendary tunnel dug beneath the High Street across to the Old Manor House.
Idyllic Cotswold scenes of Summer meadows with blue skies and cotton-wool clouds are never complete without the inclusion of the local village church steeple or tower.