Friday, 20 October 2017

Where are all the bugs?

Believe it or not, this is a flying insect. So are most beetles.
I think that all of us are aware that there are less "bugs" about than there used to be. Back in the '60s a family trip from Southampton to Yorkshire would require several stops to clean flattened insects from the windscreen of our old Austin. Today we travel much faster and acquire almost no "splats" on the way. That's on our highways, but what about the wilderness, or the nature reserves where we try to create space for insects?

A study of 63 nature reserves in Germany involved trapping flying insects and weighing the biomass caught. Scientists and volunteers have been doing this since 1989, so they have a really good run of data. There was no attempt to identify the species caught, which would be very interesting too, but the numbers speak for themselves.

Over the last 27 years, their average catch has dropped by 76% meaning that they only have about a quarter of their insects left, but are still losing them at 6% a year, assuming that the decline is steady, which it probably isn't. I'm rubbish at maths but it doesn't look like we have very much time to turn this situation around.

Remember that this study was conducted in Germany which is a country that takes the environment very seriously. Despite being part of the same Common Agriculture Policy that we are, their countryside looks to me to be in much better shape than ours. Remember too that this was done on nature reserves, so the landscape as a whole would reflect an even worse situation.

Many of our insects breed in water.
Of course, we want to know what the causes are and what we can do about it. We also want to know if the situation is any different in the UK.

The causes are really not known, but we can make guesses. If the country was a person, the reserves would be its liver. Nature reserves exist to produce a surplus of biodiversity, including insects and plants, that can spread out and (re) colonise the surrounding areas between reserves. We try really hard to do this but, what if the surrounding area is so toxic that they all fail to come home? Many bee species have declined by 30% in recent years and this is directly linked to pesticides on crops like oilseed rape that attract bees from miles around. Pesticides and pollution are certainly involved, but that's not the whole problem.

Imagine that you are an insect that only hatches when conditions are just right. The temperature and humidity are perfect, but your food plant is over, or has not yet flowered.  "That's OK", you say, "I'll just fly upwind until I find my plant, or an alternative." But the (largely wild) plants that our insects evolved to live with (and evolved to live with them) are themselves in trouble. Take a look at a farm near you. How many "weeds" can you see? Those missing common wildflowers once fed our insects and their seeds fed our once-common birds like partridges, sparrows, buntings and finches. And that's farmland. Maybe the neighbourhood is now a new town with concrete parking bays, astro-turf yards and densely packed "town houses" with neither parking or gardens. It's impossible to argue that these changes haven't happened in the last 27 years, isn't it?

But here's another factor; climate change. If we just stay on our nature reserve where, on the surface, things haven't altered that much, we can see some pretty amazing changes such as very early springs and winters with no frost. Rivers no longer regularly flood in winter and lakes no longer freeze. Flowering dates may be all out of sync with the emergence of insects. And what about all the new species that are arriving? Many of them are predators like Asian hornets and harlequin ladybirds. There are new parasites too but these newcomers are a minor factor in my view.

The survey looked only at flying insects, many of which have their larval stage in water. We tend to think of a river or lake being a pretty stable environment, separate from the land around it, but of course it isn't. We have had acid rain, over abstraction, siltation, and eutrophication. If the main cause was to be pesticides, they would surely be in our waterways too, and where do we think all those medicines and chemicals go that we tip down the drain or the loo? A lot of upland rivers have never really recovered from pesticides used in sheep dips years ago and drainage of the uplands has created a rapid run-off situation which results in multiple short spates with droughts in between.

Paxton Pits Nature Reserve. Looking good on the surface.
The average temperature in our ponds has risen, and this can have a huge effect on the sensitive creatures that live there. Warm water dissolves less oxygen and has more algal blooms. It can become like a thick soup in summer with floating mats that prevent the sunlight from reaching the bottom, killing off the underwater plants. As it's biodiversity declines, the pond loses its ability to recover from shocks like these.

Studies have been carried out over the years on many of our waterways and lakes to see changes in in the insect species that live there. Anglers have had concerns about this all of my lifetime ass the hatch of mayflies has all but disappeared in many rivers. I used to use a trout fly called the March Brown but the early season fly that it imitated is no longer around.  Lakes and Lochs that once boasted prolific hatches of mayflies and caddisflies now only contain silt-loving midges that emerge in smothering swarms on summer evenings. Now it seems that even they are declining. 

Red Admiral Butterfly
Does the German study reflect our situation in the UK? The numbers may not be exactly the same but my bet is that they would be really close. One indicator is the decline in butterflies which are monitored every year by the charity Butterfly Conservation. 2016 was the worst year on record with 40 of the 57 species monitored in decline. Interestingly, some species have increased their ranges, probably because of climate change.

Moths are also in trouble. "Studies have found the overall number of moths has decreased by 28% since 1968. The situation is particularly bad in southern Britain, where moth numbers are down by 40%. Many individual species have declined dramatically in recent decades and over 60 became extinct in the 20th century." (Butterfly Conservation website)

I have worked on Nature Reserves for over 30 years and I studied butterflies and moths on Salisbury Plain in the 70s. I can tell you that insect decline is real and has arrived at a nature reserve near you.

The story get's worse. It's not only insects that are declining, on and off our reserves, insect eating birds are in trouble too. Shortage of insects in the breeding season means that chicks starve in the nest. The adults may only have a couple of years to reproduce themselves in and every failure contributes to a fall in the population. Is this what happened to our Nightingales?  Swallows are declining across Europe, but seem to be stabilised in the UK. They are helped by having a long breeding season and may attempt to raise three or even four broods in a year, whereas many warblers only have one brood. Overall, our bird population is down 6% since 1970, but some species fare much worse than others.

This is from a Defra report this year (2017): "Birds associated with farmland, which covers 75 per cent of land in the UK, were down by 55 per cent, woodland birds by 21 per cent and seabirds by 20 per cent."

What can we do about all this? Certainly we must clean up our act and think Bug! When we manage a reserve, a farm or even a garden, we need to think about increasing the number of insects.


Thursday, 12 October 2017

A change of scene.

Our son Nicholas and the glorious Gabriella have moved from the hurly-burly of London to a deep rural idyll in Herefordshire. I couldnt wait to pay a visit. This was an area I knew well back in 1967 because I could easily reach it from Newport riding my Lambretta on on a day out. I wanted to see if it was a lovely now as it was then.

Leaving the cluttered motorways behind at Worcester, I suddenly found myself back in Tolkien's Shire; a landscape of rolling hills and ancient hedgerows that define small fields and orchards. Most of the farms specialise in livestock rather than crops, which is in direct contrast to East Anglia where I live now. It's a landscape that hasn't changed much in 400 years or more, and many of the houses and farms are much older than that. There is a black-and-white driving trail that takes in those villages and towns that still feature a significant number of medieval timber framed buildings.

Weobley (Weebly not Wobbly) is an outstanding example of a large medieval village with a (ruined) castle at the upper end of the street and a church at the other. The main street is broad and features a range of old black-and-white buildings that have, of course, changed their functions over the years, so that we now have two pubs at the top of the town, a restaurant, a cafe, a village shop, two B&Bs, a unique mini petrol-station, a hairdresser's, post office and an Indian restaurant that used to be the Red Lion Hotel.  Below that lies the Cruck House, possible the oldest in England, where Nick and Gabbs now live.

A village walking trail that has information boards around the streets was useful to find my way around, but it's impossible to get lost as long as you can see the church steeple.

Taking a short loop beyond the main street, I found a couple of farms, an old warehouse that is being converted to flats, a library that holds a museum, a working pottery and more historic buildings. I then explored the churchyard before picking up Nick and Gabby and heading back up the hill for supper.

It still wasn't dark, so we set off to find the castle mounds. Nick and Gabby were delighted to find that they could get a phone signal from the top of the town whereas I was more pleased to see that there was a web of public footpaths that circled the village and radiated from it. In one direction we could see Cleeve Hill in England and, in the other, the ridge of the Black Mountains above Ryader, in Wales on the other side of the River Wye.

I fell in love with Weobley and with the superb pub at the top of the town and I hope that Nick and Gabby will stay there a while so that I can return again and again.


Friday, 6 October 2017

In God's Acre.

Yew berries.
Every  autumn, when there is a sunny day with a deep blue sky, I head to the churchyard to see what's about. As I get older, I feel a growing affinity for this time of year, but not in any negative way. After the fading brilliance of the summer, I look forward to the crisp, slanting light and glowing colours.

Despite the sun and the blue sky, today is a very windy day, due to the remains of two Caribbean hurricanes that are passing through the UK, bringing a fall of American birds to our west coast and our most far-flung Atlantic islands. There is a cinematic blizzard of golden and brown leaves between the headstones that could denote the passage of time but, because of the strong wind, my chances of catching any small birds out in the open are limited.

A headstone spattered with fallen berries.
I work my way along the south wall, keeping my back to the sun so that the scene is well illuminated, but all I can detect is a small disturbance in a yew tree that has a holly bush growing up through it. A pair of great tits are snatching bright red arils; the scarlet berries of yew trees that are edible, but extremely sticky.

Blue tits hunt spiders in a cedar nearby and a pair of extremely shy blackbirds cluck in the undergrowth. They explode skywards as I approach and I wonder if these are the first winter visitors to the church-yard. After all, unlike their wilder Scandinavian brethren, English blackbirds are not generally bothered by my presence. Two song thrushes flit from a hawthorn bush: definitely song thrushes, redwings are darker in hue and it's too soon for them to be here.
Shaggy parasols, ignored in the churchyard
but very much edible. 
At the back of my mind, I'm hoping for a few early migrants from the east, but the wind has been in the wrong direction. A few goldcrests and yellow-browed warblers have reached the Norfolk Coast, but the main inward migration hasn't started here yet.

In fact, the last swallows and martins are still saying their farewells and the neighbouring wetlands along the Great Ouse valley are still rich in insects such as dragonflies that attract the last few hobby-falcons of the season.

In my graveyard, I watch the last of the summer's butterflies sunning themselves on an ancient sun-bathed wall. A fresh-looking red admiral and a faded and battered speckled wood are attracted to the tendrils of flowering ivy that cling to a memorial stone. They need to keep sharp because predatory hornets are patrolling the sunny glades. Under a faded buddleia, I find a pile of butterfly wings that the hornets have discarded.

All the conkers on the village green are gone,
but children shun the graveyard. 
It's a rich habitat, this graveyard, with sunny walls, evergreens, deciduous trees and lawns. Ladybirds cling to tombstones. squirrels gather nuts and acorns while robins hunt for worms on freshly dug graves.

In autumn, it's a place ripe with metaphors for death and decay but that's not what I see. It's an ancient man-made woodland habitat that holds it own special mix of residents and attracts a good range of migrants, and that's ignoring the church itself with its hibernating bats.

Etched letters in stone
The yews were planted long ago to provide longbows for our wars with the French. The cedars, pines  and redwoods are Victorian imports from the new world, while the other trees such as holly, alder and elder were brought in more recently by birds. Horse chestnuts and ash trees were planted quite recently, simply to provide diversity, but the oaks were probably planted by squirrels or jays, maybe a hundred year ago.

The great thing about churchyards is that they give you perspective; a long term view. It's not just all those graves with their headstones dating back through the centuries, even though they are so interesting in themselves. Have you ever noticed how few and how localised the names on the stones were only a hundred years ago?

Gargoyle. What animal is this?
Can we re-introduce them?
Graveyards measure time for us. As more bodies are buried, the ground actually rises, so that the church may appear to sink, and, because the stones are dated, we can measure the rate of growth in lichens or the rate of decay in the inscriptions due to air pollution. The graves record wars, plagues and waves of immigration, the infant mortality rate and our own growing longevity.

But all  of this twaddle can be set aside if you like.

The fact remains that graveyards are just great places to see wildlife and to grab a bit of peace, especially in an urban setting.  Visit yours and tell me what you see.


Sunday, 24 September 2017

A September Anniversary.

Hanna and I have been married for 34 years. We had three weddings in fact, being party animals at the time, so we had two weddings in Sussex and one in Naperville, Chicago.

The legalities were covered by a registry office wedding in Worthing. We drove there in the Wildlife Trust Transit van with half a dozen car-sick witnesses. We were late, I drove like an idiot, and there were no seats or windows in the back. I didn't actually know where the registry office was. It was a lovely service though, followed by lunch at a pretty little restaurant in Burpham. We had an amazing party that night at the White Horse pub in Sutton, with the famous Copper Family singers in attendance.

The big wedding took place the next day at the Wildfowl Trust centre in Arundel, and we closed the place for the whole afternoon and evening. This time Hanna and her Dad (Nic) were the ones to be late. Nic drove a rental car that nearly landed up in the lake outside as the locked wheels spat gravel across the water. Of course the whole evening was more than perfect and I still can't believe we had such a marvelous start to our married life.

We flew to Chicago for our honeymoon, but first we had to put on a mini wedding for those who didn't make it to England. I really liked Chicago, but I enjoyed our honeymoon trip across America and back even more. I must write this all up properly when I have sorted the thousands of slides from our loft and scanned them in. Anyway, the date was September 23rd 1983, hence the celebrations this weekend.

How did we celebrate the day? We went for a walk on a nature reserve near home. True to form, I got us lost and we had only an hour to explorer Titchmarsh Nature Reserve, which isn't anywhere near Titchmarsh really, it's in Aldwincle. This beautiful stone village lies just over the border from us in Northamptonshire. You can actually camp in the church!

You have heard of "Glamping" (glamorous camping) but have you heard of "Champing" (church camping)? 

After all the frenzied nonsense of our week, even an hour outside worked miracles for us as we meandered about watching fish, dragonflies, spiders and even a snail. Sometimes it is enough to simply stand still and tune-in. That's when you notice the strange white bees visiting the  Himalayan Balsam flowers. Their fuzzy white coats are made of a wooly blanket of balsam pollen.

One paddock was almost entirely composed of teasels and nothing else. We saw no wildlife in there at first but then we noticed that some of the teasels were shaking, as if struck by a sudden gust of wind. A whole flock of invisible Soay sheep was grazing away in there. They disturbed a charm of goldfinches that swelled to a rippling swarm that passed over our heads to feed on thistle down across the stream.

All too soon we had to leave, escorted by a squadron of greylag geese, then a buzzard and two red kites. We were not late home.

Tuesday, 18 July 2017

How I became an RSPB Warden.

If you ever read this and want to know what happened next, go to and say that Jim sent you!

Furze wren or Dartford warbler.
60 years ago, England was a different place. I lived in Southampton at that time, an important port that had largely been flattened by successive air raids. Rebuilding of the town had only just begun but the harbour was fully operational with great rows of ocean liners owned by the P&O, Cunard and Union Castle Lines moored up at the quays. Cargo such as Fyfe's bananas, Jaffa Oranges and cut timber came in from all over the world. Flying boats took off from the water and flew over my school. They might be going to Kenya where they would land on Lake Naivasha, or Uganda where they would use Lake Victoria, and then perhaps on to refuel in the Seychelles on their way to India. I had no idea that my future career would eventually take me down those same flight-lines.

There were jobs to be had for sure; that's why we moved there. My dad worked on the ships installing and repairing cine projectors and sound systems as well as working on tape recorders, radios and the latest televisions. Business was booming, but I wanted to work outdoors in the countryside.

In the mid 1960's, most children left school at 16 to find work. My "careers teacher" had probably done his military service and gone straight into teaching, then attended a training course at some point. I told him I'd like to be a game-keeper and he countered that I'd make a good policeman like my grandad, mostly because I was tall.

The New Forest was on my doorstep so I wrote to the Forestry Commission in Brockenhurst. They never replied. I probably wrote to the wrong office; I hadn't a clue what I was doing really. Fortunately my O-level grades were good enough for me to carry on at school and I eventually went to be trained as a teacher in Bristol.

My interest in the outdoors never waned. I studied to be a geography teacher but we also had to take a different subsidiary subject each year and I chose to start with natural science. Miss Jelley taught us how to set up a nature table, make plaster casts, identify plants and animals by using keys and all the things I would later do as head of environmental studies at a big primary school on Salisbury Plain.

Meanwhile, our geography department took us on a field week to Devon where I teamed up with a mature student who said he had been in the SAS. He told me how he had been parachuted into the bush dressed as a Massai warrior during the Kenyan Mau Mau uprising. I wasn't sure I believed him at the time, but I played along as he had a pair of 8x30 military binoculars that had cross-hairs in the lenses. You had to focus each eyepiece individually, which made them slow to set up, but they were quite literally an eye-opener for me. They were in colour! Most books and almost all tv at the time was in black and white, so I had only seen close-ups of wildlife in monochrome. I became a proper bird-watcher on that trip, seeing my first fulmars, buzzards and peregrines up close.

As a young teacher in Wiltshire I soon discovered a network of other birdwatchers and naturalists and became aware of the wider world of nature conservation. That's when I found the RSPB.

Every year, near Christmas, the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds came to Salisbury with a film show and a van-load of sales goods. I took my class along to see the new crop of films made by the society's own film department and I bought calendars, cards and wrapping paper, illustrated by the likes of Charles Tunnicliffe and Robert Gillmor. I was inspired to become a member and I started a Young Ornithologists Club in School.

Old RSPB logo on a car badge.
At that point the only paid member of RSPB staff I had seen was a man called Trevor Gunton. He was the development officer who ran the film shows and toured every village hall in the country giving slide shows in his spare time. Trevor would go on to set up the regional members groups and take the society's membership past the million mark. We are still in touch as he is a volunteer on the nature reserve where I work today.

I was also involved in the local Natural History Society and the newly formed Wiltshire Ornithological Society. I once joined a group of elderly ladies for a field trip to look for orchids on the military ranges and we were led by a young man called Peter Newberry from the local Wildlife Trust, which was based in Marlborough. Peter's version of orchid hunting turned out to be an extreme sport with a bit of botany thrown in. Peter had an old Landrover that he took up, down and across the steepest of slopes and gave us all a good scare. "Newbs" went on to work at the Lodge where I found out that cars were a bit of a passion. He used to study woodcocks in the local forests by setting up mist nets across the rides and forest tracks at dusk. He would then drive his route in an open-top sports car that was so low he could drive it under the nets. This was at night, with the lights off. I think he eventually won the trophy for fastest run down the drive at the Lodge, achieving over 100 mph. It was probably as a result of this that the drive now has some pretty fierce "sleeping policemen" installed.

On a birding trip to Cotswold Water Park I met an extremely tall young man with a shock of unruly dark hair who was throwing a drag line out into the lakes to collect weed samples. This was my first encounter with a proper scientist who wasn't a teacher. His name was Dr. James Cadbury and he would later become the Head of Science at the Lodge. He is undoubtedly the best all-round naturalist I have ever met. Our paths would cross many times, including in Seychelles where his father Christopher had bought two islands and set them up as nature reserves.

As an isolated member of the RSPB, the arrival of "Birds" magazine was my window into a world of bird watching, photography, artwork and the politics of conservation; more than that, it featured real people who had proper jobs as full time staff. One edition of the magazine featured an article on Dartford warblers. These "furze wrens" are the shape of a long-tailed tit with the colours of port, cranberries and heather stems and they live mainly on spiders. In those days they were confined to the the New Forest and part of the Dorset coast near Corfe Castle. The article featured pictures of the birds and their habitat, but my eye was caught by a photo of a man with a petrol-powered vacuum cleaner on his back. He was sucking the bugs out of a gorse bush to see what was there for a warbler to eat.  Young Colin Bibby was a researcher from the Edward Grey Institute (part of Oxford University) and he would follow James Cadbury as head of Research at the Lodge and later at BirdLIfe International in Cambridge.

I would never have been a good scientist, but wouldn't it be amazing to work alongside these people?

Another copy of "Birds" featured an RSPB reserve called Leighton Moss. Among the pictures of otters and bitterns one photo caught my eye because it had a man in it. That man was John Wilson and he was cutting back the reed-bed using a two wheeled Allen scythe. He was an RSPB Warden.

It took me until the mid 70s to discover all this. A career in nature conservation simply didn't exist in the 60s, though there were retired colonels and brigadiers who pioneered the way using their military pensions to get by. You could find them in the National Trust and the fledgeling societies and trusts that were springing up. They would employ ex-servicemen to work for them, and they in turn would eventually employ civilians like me.

Looking back to the 50s and 60s, it was hard not to be aware of at least one conservationist and that was Sir Peter Scott. He was the son of Robert Falcon Scott, known as "Scott of the Antarctic", and his mother was a famous sculptor, but I first knew him as the man who started the Wildfowl Trust at Slimbridge. My parents took me there several times and I loved it. I demanded that they buy me one of  Scott's paintings, but they didn't; £30 was a lot of money back then. Never mind though, I had fifty "Peter Scotts" on a set of Brooke-Bond tea cards called "Wildlife in Danger".

This cover of Bird Magazine
led to people resigning.
Is this supposed to be art?
I loved it.
As I progressed through school, I would encounter more of Peter Scott's paintings and his books, but for most people it was his pioneering broadcasts that brought wildlife and nature conservation into our living rooms through a small wooden box containing a grey cathode ray tube. He paved the way for Hans and Lotte Hass and Jacques Cousteau to show us the underwater world. Armand and Michaela Denis would take us on an African safari every week and James Fisher would take us around London Zoo. Eventually a young David Attenborough would take us on Zoo Quests to New Guinea and Madagascar.

This was all great stuff, but in a class-ridden society, these well-spoken, highly educated and wealthy people seemed distant and extremely privileged. Their world was only open to us as voyeurs. We couldn't join in and had about as much chance of going on safari or SCUBA diving as going to the moon. Or, at least, that's what I thought at the time. But seeing a photo of John Wilson, RSPB Warden, changed all that for me. I could do that.

As an educator, the logical way-in would be as a teacher-naturalist. I took several courses in Field Biology and got a degree from the Open University, then my chance came when Sir Peter Scott built a fabulous new Wildfowl Trust centre at Arundel and I became its first education officer. There I would rub shoulders with the Scotts and all sorts of famous people, including David Attenborough, Bill Oddie and even Prince Charles. My Mum was thrilled, but I learned the most from my colleagues and I started to network with other organisations including the Wildlife Trust, the RSPCA, Keep Britain Tidy, the World Wildlife Fund, and of course, the RSPB. I was now a professional charity worker, specialising in environmental education and wildlife conservation. I could have moved to almost anywhere, but to me the absolute pinnacle of my career would be reached if I could be accepted as an RSPB Warden.

When the warden's job at Vane Farm on Loch Leven came up I just had to apply.

To read on, please go to   

Saturday, 8 July 2017

The Shankie.

I entered this story in the Bristol Short Story Competition but it did not make the long list. The winner The artwork is from my son Nick's notebook.

Rather than give an account of the brilliant days and nights I spent on the loch, I decided to share this story with you again because it gives a much better idea of how big a roll the fishing played in the lives of those round the loch.

The Shankie.

Around the loch, where every other person has the same surname, we use nicknames a lot; they are rarely flattering but they serve to avoid confusion.

Last month, when Auld Willie Clarke suddenly dropped dead, it caused no end of chaos; not least because, in a rush to meet their deadline, the reporters at “The Courier and Crier” didn’t bother to find out which William Clarke was dead and rolled out an obituary that they had already prepared for an elderly councillor from Fife. His family was not much amused, I imagine.

Our William Clarke was always called "The Shankie"; not due to his long legs, but to his initials, W.C.  His son, Young Willie, is known to everyone as “Kipper” Clarke because of his permanent tan.

The Shankie was never a man to seek public office or court popularity, but he made his contribution to life around here in his own way. He spent his working life in the deepest pits of the Fife coalfield, hewing his way for several miles out beneath the Firth of Forth. It must have been terrifying for an outdoor man like him to be so far down in that colourless world under the rock and the sea. No doubt he experienced cave-ins, floods and fires, but he never said.  

We knew him as a long-time committee member of our fishing club, which I'll tell you now, is a bigger deal than you might think.  He was a fine fly-tier, specialising in the local patterns that we use on the loch, such as the grouse-and-claret, the gold-ribbed hare’s-ear, the Dunkeld and the kingfisher butcher.  

I have a box of his flies here before me now. They are distinctive because, like the man himself, they are big, generous and hirsute; not to say flashy.  These are a coal miner’s flies, made from all sorts of garish, man-made bits and bobs. They cost nothing to make and never once won prizes for their elegance. All the same the trout did not seem to mind and we all had success with them. My favourite pattern of his has to be the “Blae and Black”, which is our name for the big midge that can be so thick over the surrounding trees and the castle that they appear to be on fire with columns of smoke waving above them. 

It was good to see so many club members at the Kirk on Wednesday and I think we gave Willie a good send-off with beer and stovies in the Lodge afterwards. There was just one more thing to do, and that was to scatter his ashes on the water. You can understand why, as a miner,  he didn’t want to be buried underground.

As with everything else these days there are bureaucrats to pacify and procedures to go through. Forms exist to be filled in. Because of increasing nutrient levels in the loch, no-one is allowed to add phosphates and nitrates to the water, willy-nilly: for that you have to get permission from Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH). So, on behalf of the club and the Clarke family, I wrote to SNH making a special case. I had to use all the clout I had, and tell a few fibs along the way but, several phone-calls later, the boffins up at Faskally and the pen-pushers in Edinburgh reluctantly consented; but they made it clear that this event did not make a precedent and that the loch was not to become an unofficial cemetery for dead anglers. “Amen to that!” I said.

Last Saturday was to be the day of the Laird's Trophy fishing competition.  We arranged to raft-up all the boats off Castle Island at noon in order to scatter Willie's ashes while we drifted along the shore, toasting him with a dram or two.

I think it is true to say that Mrs Clarke was not thrilled by the prospect. She told Kipper that she had lost her husband to the loch for most of her married life and he was hers now. They had quite a row about it, but in the end a compromise was reached. The loch and the widow would get half each. Half the ashes remained in the urn and the other half went into a plastic sandwich tub for the club.

Now, Young Kipper is a rising star in our fly-fishing team. He has bags of energy and he is organised. On Friday night he started to pack his gear for the match but then it suddenly dawned on him that he could now use his dad's best rods and reels. More than that, he knew that his dad would want him to use them. It took him hours to find everything and to make up his mind what to take, but he had it all packed in the old Austin van by bed-time. In the morning there was a rush to fill flasks and make sandwiches, so he almost forgot to bring the box of ashes.

We had a grand morning on the loch with fish often coming to the take just as the line was lifted off for the next cast. Everyone was in a good mood as we assembled just before noon. Kipper lifted out the cheap sandwich box to inspect the contents and found........ only teabags. 

He felt and looked like a lost bairn, almost in tears.  And, with no way to contact home, there was nothing to be done about it. Worse still, he knew that we would never hear the end of it. Someone suggested that we make the box of tea-bags into an annual booby prize called "The Shankie Trophy", but really it was just good natured but clumsy banter to relieve the tension and make him feel better.

Just the same, a bottle of whisky was opened and we had started to pass it around when we heard the drone of powerful outboards heading towards us from the direction of the pier. A bright orange fiberglass boat thumped across the length of the loch in minutes and made a braking turn alongside us. There was the stocky, bearded SNH warden seated at the helm, with the tiny figure of Mrs Clarke standing alongside him and holding the urn aloft. Doubtless she had found the box of ashes and realised how much the day meant to her son. We all cheered like fury.

So Mrs Clarke did the honours for Willie, which was how it should always have been planned from the start. We had the warden fire a blue flare up into the sky so it could be seen from the pier, the lodge, the village and even the Laird’s big house. 

The exploding flare made a boom that echoed off the hills and a snaking trail of smoke that soon faded away to leave a small, round, grey puff of a cloud that stayed for a long while over the loch.

Sunday, 2 July 2017

Butterfly bullies.

Hunting for butterflies sounds like a bit of a joke. You might imagine and old clergyman out with a net and a killing jar, or a man wearing shorts like a boy scout, but with a beard and thick spectacles, waist deep in meadow grasses. In fact, butterfly collecting is still big business. I remember going to a forest on top of the Uluguru mountains in Tanzania to find quite a sophisticated trapping operation in progress, and this happens across the tropics. The collectors who buy these butterflies are mostly in wealthy countries like ours and the victims end up in glass cases.

Needless to say, when I go butterfly hunting it is with a camera, not a net and it is quite a challenging sport. Having said that there is the lazy way, which is to find a thistle flower, some lavender flowers or a buddleia bush and just wait. If it's not too windy and there are butterflies about they will come to you. I've had great success with this method but mostly with the big common  garden butterflies such as tortoiseshells, red admirals, peacocks and brimstones. The rarer butterflies tend to be a bit more picky about where to live and which plants to visit.

In a flower-rich meadow you would expect butterflies to flit from flower to flower like bees do, but there's much more going on than that. A solo migratory butterfly, such as a clouded yellow, never seems to stop flying. They may just be migrating through or they may be looking for a mate, neither of which involves landing on a flower.  Other species don't travel far at all, but they still don't spend all day feeding. These butterflies are quite territorial and so, although they might start the day sunning themselves to warm up, they need to find a spot to show off and attract a mate, just like birds do, except that butterflies don't sing (at least I've never heard one.) They need to perform a dance, and perhaps use an attractive perfume too.

Along a shaded path there might be dappled sunlight. Each golden-green sunny glade is a stage for a street- performing woodland butterfly who will breakdance himself dizzy to attract a mate. He will defend his pitch against other butterflies and even other insects such as bees and hover-flies.

Green-veined white
You and I might think that one bit of a meadow is much like any other, but butterflies don't see the world in the way that we do. The flowers in the meadow glow for them like starbursts and a flowery patch is to be desired and fought over. Yes, butterflies are selfish, stroppy, competitive, bullying and aggressive!

This week I was the old man in shorts who was wading through the long grasses of our Great Meadow. I had gone there with pupils from Spring Common Academy to read the meter on our water pump but was soon distracted by the thousands of butterflies we saw there. Not for the first time, I was frustrated in my attempts to get a sharp photograph of a butterfly because there was always a blade of grass in the way, or the insect moved. I soon realised that, every time a meadow brown or a ringlet landed, it got bumped off its perch by another butterfly.
Small skipper

It seemed to me that the small blues and skippers were not so competitive, but there were fewer of these and more flowers to go around.

The butterflies I was chasing were mostly engaged in mating and territorial behaviour so they didn't stay still for long. Later they would move on to laying eggs on the food plants that their caterpillars need, just a few eggs here and there, not stopping for long at all.

Marbled white with hitch-hiking fly.
When it comes to feeding, some plants are much more attractive than others, but butterflies are also attracted by smell. Purple emperors patrol the woodland rides at Fermyn Woods and come down to feed on......(you wont like this) droppings and urine. Many butterflies are attracted by spilled beer of fruit juice. They even gather on the corpses of dead animals and lick away at the gooey moisture they find.

My star find this week was a single marbled white butterfly, which did eventually settle. When I photographed it, I found that it had a fly sitting on it. I guess photo-bombing is another reason not to hang about.

You can listen to a podcast about butterflies at Paxton Pits at