On the unusual beauty and necessity of wild roadside verges

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Spring and early summer is the most important time for flora and fauna in the UK and it is noticeably a time of abundance, bloom and new birth. But have you given much thought to the role our otherwise unremarkable roadside verges have to play in sustaining wildlife?

Road verges are a vital habitat for wildflowers that have been gradually pushed out of farmland since agricultural intensification, so that means that they support bees, insects, and therefore birds, mammals, and their predators. Many councils are making an effort to manage roadside verges and roundabouts in a more wildlife-friendly manner, and that usually involves a little less management.

I heard recently about a campaign by Plantlife to help protect and maintain roadside verges as vital grassland habitats and to encourage more and more councils to incorporate wildlife-friendly practices. Plantlife believes that with the size of road verges and with proper management there is no reason why there should be any conflict between safety and conservation.

Plantlife also state:

Road verges are hugely important for the diversity of flowering plants that they support.
Grassy verges across the UK are home to over 570 plant species, 12% of which are either
under threat or heading that way. If wooded and disturbed verges are included, the total
number of species is astonishing: over 700 in all or nearly 45% of our native flora; 87 of
them are threatened with extinction.

So when devoid of litter, when in spring bloom, the normally dull roadside verges can be fascinating and teeming with life. They are one of the few refuges for endangered wildflowers that once thrived in meadows. (For other wildflower refuges, see my post about wildlife in churchyards.)

So what guidelines do Plantlife suggest councils adopt?

  • Regular management – lowland grass verges should be cut regularly AT THE APPROPRIATE TIME to ensure that wildflowers are not overwhelmed by coarse vegetation
  • Removal of cuttings – this exposes underlying soils and encourages new growth
  • Plant cycle – plants should be allowed to complete their cycle of growing, flowering, fruiting, seeding. Cutting at the wrong time will deprive insects of nectar
  • Habitat diversity – this promotes diversity of species
  • Natural or artificial seeding – natural is the preferred method to encourage the spread of wildflowers but when this is not possible it is suggested that areas are sown with commercial seeds as a last resort.

Have to say, my council seems to be quite good at this. I see more and more roundabouts covered with poppies and ox eye daisies and I see that they let the grass grow for a while to give the flowers and insects a chance. Given that poor farmland management has contributed to the decline in wildflower meadows (97% loss, by the way), I really cannot stress how important it is for councils to get the management of roadsides right for the environment. Many of these roads and their accompanying verges have been there for centuries and the areas are therefore unimproved grassland, which is nationally important as it is naturally seeded with many rare and endangered species of wildflower.

So not only does our road network help us to get from A to B, it also provides natural transport corridors between habitats for many threatened species of wildflower and for wildlife. What’s needed is a shift in attitude that roadsides need to be short to be safe and tidy and pretty (they don’t) towards one that sees our roads as a network or corridors between habitats that needs to be protected.

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The Monkey Selfie Farce

The ongoing saga of the copyright of the famous monkey selfie has probably filtered into your consciousness at some point in the last few years but been dismissed as “some nonsense.”

Yet the case drags on and the photographer’s career – and life – has been basically ruined.

David J Slater self-funded a month-long trip around Indonesia to photograph the rare and endangered crested black macaque monkeys to draw attention to their dwindling numbers so that the world might take notice. And so it did – because the monkeys liked the shutter sound on his camera and one accidentally ended up taking a photograph of itself.

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Despite the fairly modest income the photo was going to make him, Wikipedia decided to reproduce the image, making it free for all and it has been shared over 50 million times.

The photographer became embroiled in a 6 year legal battle over the copyright and more recently in the last two years PETA has sued him, claiming that the copyright belongs to Naruto the monkey, and they have demanded to manage the funds on the monkey’s behalf. Last year, a US judge ruled against the suit, as animals are not covered by the Copyright Act, but PETA has appealed the decision.

The saddest thing about this bizarre story is that not only has a man lost his career, he has also lost his love of photography – the magic has gone. PETA has made its point and should end the stalemate – even if the monkey’s right to the image could be asserted in law, it cannot prove which monkey took the photo. Dave Slater even claims PETA is championing the wrong monkey!

Doesn’t PETA have anything else to spend its money on?

One good thing has come out of the monkey selfie image: Dave has achieved his aim and the local people no longer hunt the macaques; instead they love their ‘selfie monkeys’.

 

Book Review: The Hen Who Dreamed She Could Fly – by Sun-Mi Hwang

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There is a bit of a trend in libraries these days to display recommended books on designated shelves to help out the indecisive library-goers who want something to read but have no idea what. I always find something there that catches my eye and recently it was The Hen Who Dreamed She Could Fly *** by Sun-Mi-Hwang.

The blurb on the inside cover read:

“This is the story of a hen named Sprout. No longer content to lay eggs on command, only to have them carted off to the market, she glimpses her future every morning through the barn doors, where the other animals roam free, and comes up with a plane to escape into the wild – and to hatch an egg of her own.”

It sounds exactly like the books I like to read and it didn’t disappoint. I actually read it in one sitting, which I very rarely do, but it was only 133 pages so it’s an easy read. Sprout is an instantly sympathetic character – an animal whose natural fundamental desires are thwarted by capitalist exploitation. The book has a lot to say about the conditions of farmyard animals but from a perspective I hadn’t considered before: that while some are relatively well treated (the free range chickens) and some treated badly (the battery hens), both are denied their basic instinct for motherhood.

This is an existential problem.

Sprout manages to escape and lives a while in the farmyard, which from the unpleasant conditions of the coop she had idealised; now outside she finds a strict hierarchical society that excludes her. She makes a friend with another outsider, a wild duck named Straggler, who is also marginalised due to his injured wing and ‘otherness’.

Sprout escapes to the fields, where she finds an egg that she is compelled to look after until the mother returns. She doesn’t return, but Straggler does, and he guards and protects her throughout the incubation. I’ll stop there as I don’t want to give away any more of the plot.

There are obvious parallels with Animal Farm but it is not political in the same way. This novel is about motherhood, the exploitation of fertility, and the hidden internal world of sentient creatures. Vegans and animal rights activists will find this novel very interesting but it is also an allegorical tale about the human condition and the universal desire to survive and to raise offspring.


 

*** FYI this is an affiliate link to the Amazon listing of this book.

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Recipe: basil pesto 

I have a surfeit of basil. The yield has been too great. 

I’ve had to keep potting and repotting until I had 10 pots of basil. I have distributed some to family and neighbours but I still have more basil than I can use.

So I have made pesto. Quite a simple recipe.

Handful of basil leaves

Handful of pine nuts 

Good portion of parmesan cheese

Olive oil 

Squeeze of lemon

1/2 clove garlic
Mix them all up in a food processor or laboriously smash it all in a pestle and mortar. I would have done this but my pestle and mortar are just too small. 

I used Greek basil.

Suffolk Glamping Trip

Hello! I’ve had a week off from blogging as I’ve been living in a forest. Sorry if I’ve missed any of your posts – I’ll spend some time catching up.

I didn’t want a “big” holiday this year, after having gone to the south of France last year (that’s big for me!) So we looked for something fairly local that involved very little driving or stress or planning, and would still provide lots of nature-based things to do. We booked some camping pods in West Stow (a tiny village near Bury St Edmunds, famous for its Anglo Saxon village) but when we arrived we actually got upgraded to the lodge because some other guests changed their mind. So that worked out well for us and we had a bit more space than we were expecting.

The lodge was quite posh by my standards – nice furniture, massive telly, all mod cons. We used the BBQ most nights and by the final night we were utterly sick of veggie burgers so went into Bury St Edmunds for dinner. I don’t know if you’ve ever been a vegetarian in Bury but no amount of googling yielded any decent veggie options so we went to good old Prezzo, where you know what you’re getting.

On the first day we visited Weeting Heath, which is back over the border in Norfolk. They are known for their stone curlews and we were lucky enough to see one perched on its nest. We also saw a yellowhammer and chiffchaff. Best of all were the swallows that had decided to nest in the visitor centre and were very obliging and must have been a thrill for the staff working there. Somehow I totally forgot to go back and get a photo of them!

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Spot the stone curlew!

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Yellowhammer taking a drink

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Pines near Weeting Heath

Afterwards we popped into Brandon and had a delicious cream tea at Tilly’s tearoom. Very quaint and quirky place and really good, strong tea.

Next day we went to Ickworth House, which is a very impressive country house with a huge parkland. Some Bishop who spent a lot of time living it up in Italy came back to England and built his stately home in an Italian style. The “downstairs” was probably more interesting that the “upstairs” as they had more artifacts to look at. The Victorian owners created stumperies in the garden (they used stumps of trees to create strange and gothic shapes, a sort of fairy garden) and the modern gardening team recreated them at Ickworth. I didn’t manage to spot any fairies but I did see a green woodpecker.

On our final day we stayed local and went to Lackford Lakes, which is famous for its kingfishers (again, didn’t see one, and even if we did it would only have been a flash of electric blue). We spent some time in Bess’ hide watching a reed warbler hopping in and out after a tip off from another birder.

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The evolution of bird

In the afternoon we went for a local walk around the Culford estate – a huge estate that’s now part of a school, but the lake has public access. A very pleasant walk.

 

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