01 April 2015

British birds: a waterbird selection

Cheshire is one Britain’s most water-filled counties so I’ve encountered a wealth of waterbirds during this past six months of walking in the local countryside. Here are just a few of them.

Moorhen (Gallinula chloropsis)
This bird looks very familiar to me as we have a similar bird in my native New Zealand and I remember being surprised during a visit to the Amazon jungle in Peru to see a bird I recognised from home – their Purple Gallinule (Porphyrio martinicus) looks remarkably like our Pukeko (Porphyrio melanotus melanotus). All three birds make the same high-pitched squeak and have that same cheeky strut, continuously flashing their white undertail as they sashay along, though there are some colour differences. The British moorhen has a yellow tip to its beak and yellowish-green legs and its body colouring seems less vibrant to my eye.

The moorhen is widespread throughout Britain, second only to the mallard in the extent of its habitable range. Prior to 1954, when nest predation was made illegal, eggs were regularly taken for food – apparently they go well with bacon! The bird itself can be shot and eaten during the season, usually from 1 September to 31 January, though I’m not sure how palatable their strong dark meat would be, and I certainly wouldn’t be tempted to kill or eat a bird that is so pretty and so highly entertaining.

Coot (Fulica atra)
The common coot is also considered a game bird in Britain, with the same hunting season as the moorhen, though I would certainly never be tempted to kill one of these either. Maybe it’s something to do with birds and water, but these are also captivating to watch. The bird’s engaging silliness is probably where the idiom ‘silly coot’, used to describe a foolish person, originated. And the coot’s white head blaze is the source of another common expression ‘to be as bald as a coot’, though bald here does not mean hairless; an alternate definition of bald is ‘marked or streaked with white’. Apparently, this phrase is an ancient one, first noted in the monk John Lydgate's 1430 publication Chronicle of Troy. 

The coot is also very familiar to me as it was introduced to New Zealand in 1958 and, like most immigrants, has made itself right at home. I am constantly fascinated by its bizarre lobed feet, a cross between the long toes of wading birds and the webbed feet of swimming birds like ducks.

Grey Heron (Ardea cinerea)
I’m pleased to report that the Grey Heron is the most widespread large predatory bird in Britain and it is flourishing, with an estimated 12205 occupied nests in 2010. Herons nest communally, usually in tall mature trees, but they can and do adapt to their local environment. Some heronries are known to have been in continuous use for hundreds of years and the largest heronry in Britain is in a private wood on the north side of Budworth Mere, though I’ve seen very few heron during my frequent walks along the southern shores of that lovely lake.

This is another bird the Brits used to eat – from the early medieval period right through to the nineteenth century it was an important and relatively expensive table item. Historically, the heron was a favourite target / victim of falconry and, in order for the well-heeled to continue their enjoyment of the sport, the heron's protection was enshrined in law (being found guilty of a second offence against a heron could result in the loss of your right hand, a third in death!). Once falconry lost its popularity, the heron lost its protection and, in fact, the bird now gets persecuted by fishermen who accuse it of taking ‘their’ fish. 

Personally, I think it’s the heron’s fish and I can’t help but feel sorry that this beautiful bird should suffer due to the sporting whims of humans.

Great Cormorant (Phalacrocorax carbo)
Cormorants are common around the world – the Chinese have long been known to train domesticated birds for fishing and, in 17th-century England, it was also a court fashion to tame cormorants for fishing, a trend so prevalent that the royal household included a Master of the Cormorants.

These large and very distinct birds – to me quite reptilian in appearance – can be found throughout the UK, in their preferred habitats of rocky coastlines and coastal estuaries, as well as on inland lakes and waterways. Though they also suffer bad press from fishermen, the birds are particularly well regarded in Liverpool, where the Liver Bird – actually a cormorant – is the city's emblem.

Great Crested Grebe (Podiceps cristatus)
I’ve been delighted by this Grebe’s mating display at Budworth Mere in recent days. They make a rather noisy but thoroughly entertaining exhibition of head shaking and neck swaying and bill touching that is a joy to watch, especially with their vibrant neck plumage highlighting their every move. It comes as no surprise that those pretty plumes were once prized by early Victorian milliners to decorate their more extravagant creations. That usage, and the fact that the fine soft feathering on the bird’s body was also valued for costume adornment, meant the Great Crested Grebe was one of Britain’s rarest breeding species by the mid-1800s.

Luckily, laws were enacted to protect Britain’s water birds but the Grebe's recovery can also be attributed to mankind’s activities – and not in the way you might imagine. The massive increases in both road building and house building following the Second World War required enormous amounts of gravel, and the Great Crested Grebe was one of the birds that benefitted from the gravel pits once they had been abandoned and filled with water. It’s a fitting testament to how well Nature can recover from man’s interference in the landscape.

Many of the fact-lets for this blog post came from that most excellent publication, Birds Britannica, Mark Cocker and Richard Mabey, Chatto & Windus, London, 2005.  

30 March 2015

Best British design ever?

I’m not sure everyone would agree with this choice, particularly as the survey only included 2000 of Britain’s estimated 64.1 million people, but last week the instigators of the Samsung Galaxy S6 Great British Design Study announced that the classic red telephone box had been chosen as the Best British Design ever.

At Port Sunlight

Professor Catherine McDermott, a design expert and Director of the Curating Contemporary Design Research Group at Kingston University, was commissioned by Samsung to conduct the study as a way of celebrating the launch of their latest smartphone. McDermott and a panel of judges created a longlist which the select 2000 then voted upon.

The first British telephone box (the K1) was a concrete construction, built in 1920, but the vibrant red phone box the Brits know and love resulted from a series of design competitions held in 1923-24. The winning design, officially known as the K2 (K for kiosk), was the brainchild of Sir Giles Gilbert Scott, architect of such diverse structures as Liverpool Cathedral, the Battersea Power Station and Waterloo Bridge, though Scott had intended his phone box to be painted silver. The iconic vibrant red, officially known as ‘currant red’, was chosen instead, to make the boxes easy to spot.

Phone boxes at Arley, at Knutsford (decorated for Christmas 2014) and at Pickmere
Over the years, the phone box design morphed from the K2 (made in cast iron) to a K3 (also designed by Scott but built of concrete) to a K4 (an unsuccessful attempt to add a postage stamp dispenser on the outside – the noise disrupted phone calls and the stamps got damp) to a K5 (a plywood model for exhibition use only) to the K6 (designed in 1935 to commemorate the silver jubilee of George V and mass produced). In 1940 there were 35,000 K6s in Britain. By 1980, there were 73,000!

The book exchange at Great Budworth

From 1926 onwards, the fascias of the kiosks were emblazoned with a prominent crown, representing the British government. From 1935 to 1952 the Tudor Crown was used, the emblem of King George V’s Silver Jubilee, then from 1952 onwards, the emblem changed to St Edward’s Crown, the actual crown used at Queen Elizabeth II’s coronation. In Scotland, from 1955, the Crown of Scotland was used.

Initially, all the crowns were painted the same red as the boxes themselves but, from the early 1990s, the crowns have been highlighted with gold paint.

With the advent and subsequent popularity of mobile phones the old red telephone boxes are fast disappearing, though in some places they are also being repurposed. The one I found in the little Cheshire village of Great Budworth is now a tiny community book exchange and other alternate uses include a miniature art gallery in Settle, Yorkshire, the world’s smallest pub at Shepreth in Cambridgeshire, and a place to house a defibrillator in the village of Glendaruel in Argyll. For the bargain price of £2250 (excluding delivery), you can buy a K6 phone box and create your very own library or art gallery or bar or …

At Plumley
Oh, and in case you’re wondering about the rest of that Best British Design list, here are the top 25:

1. Red Phone Box (K Series)
2. Routemaster Double Decker Bus
3. Union Jack
4. Spitfire
5. Rolls Royce
6. London Taxi
7. Tube Map
8. Mini Cooper
9. Concorde
10. Red Pillar Box
11. Jaguar E-Type
12. Aston Martin DB5
13. Miniskirt
14. London Eye
15. Double Helix DNA structure
16. Wembley Stadium
17. First Class Postage Stamp
18. Dr Martens
19. Angel of the North
20. Wellington Boots
21. London 2012 Olympic Torch
22. Tartan Print
23. Burberry Trench Coat
24. Saville Row Suit
25. Fred Perry Polo Shirt

25 March 2015

A celebration of trees: March: Forests

Saturday 21 March was the 2015 International Day of Forests so this month I celebrate that conglomeration of trees and undergrowth we variously label a forest, jungle, woods or woodland or, in my native New Zealand, bush.

Delamere Forest
If anyone needs convincing as to why we need to stop deforestation and create more forests around the world, here are some of the reasons:

Royd Wood, Tabley
ü              Forests are the most biologically diverse ecosystems on our land masses.

ü              Forests provide a home to more than 80% of our terrestrial species of plants, insects and animals.

ü              Forests protect the watersheds that provide 75% of the world’s fresh water.

ü              Forests play a vital part in our adaptation to and prevention of global climate change.

ü              Forests provide shelter and jobs to forest-dependant communities.

ü              More than one billion people around the world depend on forests and trees for their food and income.

ü              Forests are the earth’s lungs, contributing to the balance of oxygen, carbon dioxide and humidity in the air.

ü              Each year every person in the world eats about 11kg of food from forests (leaves, fruit, mushrooms, honey, etc).

ü              Forests and trees are the source of many medicines, treating illnesses like malaria, heart disease and cancer.

 As UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon says, ‘To build a sustainable, climate-resilient future for all, we must invest in our world's forests. That will take political commitment at the highest levels, smart policies, effective law enforcement, innovative partnerships and funding.’  

Wood near Gravestones Farm, Pickmere

We are blessed with some lovely forests and woodlands near where I’m currently living, in the English county of Cheshire, so I am fortunate indeed to be able to walk regularly through these magical places. The Japanese have a term for walking in the woods that I particularly like – it’s shinrin yoku, which literally means ‘forest bathing’. I think the world would be a much better place if we all bathed regularly in forests.

Woodlands at Tatton Park, Knutsford
A new planting at Spud Wood, near Lymm

Woodland near Comberbach

Holford Moss, near Plumley
Arboretum at Marbury Country Park, near Northwich

Mill Wood, Arley