Polemic With Blobfish

It’s something that we rarely contemplate, but we humans are a species. Arguably the most intelligent species, and unquestionably the most adaptable, influential and destructive species, but a single species regardless. Homo sapiens, the ‘wise man’.

If we strip away the ego and artifice that we have constructed to describe ourselves, we are a simple taxonomic unit, sitting on a list with fellow units such as the naked mole-rat, the blobfish and the potato. Admittedly the blobfish has yet to evolve the ability to shape the entire planet in its own image, but who can truly say that there isn’t an alternate reality in which the blobfish has dominion (the multiverse theory at the heart of quantum physics makes blobfish world a genuine and wonderful possibility).

There are many species on earth that wield huge influence over their ecosystems. These are generally described as keystone species: those species that are fundamental to the successful function of a particular ecosystem. Beavers, for example, fundamentally change the structure and hydrology of their home ranges through dam building, creating habitat for species that could otherwise not survive. Many apex predators are also considered to be keystone species because they control populations of smaller herbivores, which in turn allows diverse botanical communities to flourish. A sound example is the Eurasian lynx, a large cat that predates species such as rabbit and small deer that could otherwise graze out vast areas of vegetation. A common theme that unites all keystone species is that they are relatively few in number, and their influence on their ecosystem far exceeds their abundance. This is where any attempt to portray mankind as a keystone species begins to crumble somewhat. We are certainly not few in number, and we don’t inhabit a particular ecosystem. In fact, with the exception of the marine world (for the time being) there are few terrestrial ecosystems that we have not found a way to infiltrate and change. Our influence is extraordinary. We are legion, and we transcend the definition of a keystone species. That puts us in our own category, where many of the adjectives we use to describe other organisms just don’t fit. Some authors have referred to humans as a virus which, whilst technically false, does act as a useful metaphor to describe our influence.

Over a relatively short period of time we have developed the ability to engineer our environment on a massive scale. Deforestation converted much of our wildwood to agriculture, which in turn allowed the population to expand, leading to further deforestation. Huge tracts of land have disappeared completely beneath cities and roads, which require extensive quarrying to plunder the land of its resources. Fossil fuels have driven the expanse of industry, which in turn has influenced the climate. This has subsequently altered the oceans, the one ecosystem where mankind has yet to gain a foothold. Ocean warming, coupled with changes in chemical composition and the drastic effects of manmade plastics on many marine species, means that although we haven’t colonised the ocean, we have still influenced it hugely, and not for the better. I don’t approve of the influence that humans have had in the planet, but I can accept that it was inevitable. Had any other species evolved so greatly in such a short time then doubtless the planet would have been shaped in their image instead, with equally disastrous results. Especially those sodding blobfish.

The success of our species is a product of our ingenuity, which has allowed us to overcome the things that would normally inhibit the growth of populations. As mentioned above, apex predators generally occur in small numbers that are restricted by the availability of prey, and the balance of predator and prey tends to find a natural equilibrium. If the predator reduces the prey population too much then weaker individuals can’t feed and die out, at which point prey numbers increase and predators feast, thus beginning the cycle afresh. We humans have found a way to stay ahead of the game in this respect by developing a diverse diet and giving over huge tracts of land to the farming of crops and livestock to sustain us. This has traditionally been very successful, but there are many shocking examples of where our control over nature wains and the needs of a rapidly growing population can’t be met. The horrific scenes of African famine from the latter half of the twentieth century to the present day provide a stark example. In recent years there has been a shift in political rhetoric, and the fact that we live on a small orb with finite resources has finally been realised. It is, however, only 30 years since the concept of sustainability was first introduced to global politics by the Brundtland Commission. With hindsight it seems like a case of ‘too little, too late’. We can’t cheat the system forever.

The rate of measured biodiversity decline over the past century is astonishing. A pessimist might say that this is just the beginning, and that the habitat loss required to sustain further exponential population growth will prove the death knell for global biodiversity. A slightly more optimistic view is that the value of nature is now realised, and that this value encapsulates more than just pounds, shillings and pence. For this reason there is a genuine desire from some quarters to retain and protect the jewels of the natural world, and even to redress some of the damage we have inflicted by creating and restoring new habitats. I don’t know which of these views I most closely align with, but suspect I fall somewhere in the middle. I’m heartened by efforts to enhance biodiversity and to think beyond the immediate needs of people, but I also feel that protecting a few trees whilst the rape of the rainforest continues is little more than tokenism. A more fundamental change is needed to have any kind of measurable benefit on a global scale, and it’s hard to see where that change might come from.

It’s sad to think that in a few generations iconic species like the giant panda, the tiger or the mountain gorilla might be little more than photographs in dusty old textbooks, but it’s also realistic. It’s very clear that we, as the most influential species by a great margin, have assumed stewardship over our planet, and therefore it’s our responsibility to address these declines in biodiversity. We each need to realise that we are not separate from nature, but a part of it, a species like any other. By destroying biodiversity we are slowly destroying ourselves. It might already be too late, the flywheel effect of actions already committed may have taken us across the Rubicon, but we have to try, if for no other reason than the act of immersion in nature is one if life’s purest pleasures, and one of the greatest releases from the pressure and stress of modern existence. We owe it to ourselves to resist.

As you read this there are teams of scientists working day and night on developing a means of terraforming mars, effectively creating a backup earth for when this planet can no longer sustain us. The virus moving to new host, if you’ll forgive a moment of indulgent hyperbole. Personally I’m investing my time in creating a wormhole to the blobfish world.

Why not?

Why not let your lawn grow long?
The bees would be elated.
A meadow born from tidy turf,
With the weekly mow abated.

Why not let your lawn grow long?
The results might be surprising.
Clovers, hawkbits and buttercups,
A wildflower uprising.

Why not let your lawn grow long?
And let the grass climb high.
Who knows which species may appear,
Amid the fescue and the rye.

Why not let your lawn grow long?
And create some habitat.
Nectar for insects and tussocks for voles,
Giving shelter from the cat.

Why not let your lawn grow long?
Especially in the summer.
We can sit out on the patio,
And count flowers of every colour.

Why not let your lawn grow long?
I really think we should.
An act of green rebellion,
Within every neighbourhood.

So why not let your lawn grow long?

An Urban Ramble

I went for a short walk on Saturday, as I often do on weekend days when the sun is shining. I live in the suburbs, and I’m very fortunate to have access to several different areas of green space within walking distance from my front door. On Saturday I walked my favourite route, which took me along part of the River Cole and around the old mill pond, before heading back home. It’s not a very long walk, but it’s often richly rewarding.

The River Cole is one of the city’s best kept secrets, a green motorway connecting the suburban fringe to the heart of the metropolis. The entire route is accessible to the public, however most visitors are drawn to a few hotspots, leaving a few secret locations that are seldom visited. I walked the whole route once, although admittedly I then twisted my ankle and had to get the bus home. Not very dignified…

The river is typical of many watercourses in urban settings, in that it is a strange mishmash of the natural and manmade. My favourite section is an area where the channel is divided into two, separated by an area of interesting swamp vegetation that simply teems with dragonflies during the summer. There are several clues that this divergence in the channel is not a natural phenomenon, not least the presence of metal sluice gates that can be opened and closed in response to periods of heavy rainfall to stop the nearby roads and houses from flooding. I’ve never seen the sluice gates closed, but the the cogs and handle that sit atop the graffitied brick plinth are always well greased and ready for action. I like the thought that greasing the sluice gate cogs is someone’s job. I also like the idea that someone is the custodian of the special metal crank, designed to mesh perfectly with the fixed metal workings that bring the simple mechanism to life.

The flora and fauna that inhabit the riparian corridor is rich and interesting. Strong lines of mature alder, willow, poplar and ash sit astride a central mosaic of rush, sedge and reedmace. Small pockets of beautiful things can be found in every direction: yellow flag, meadowsweet, marsh marigold and many more. The riverbank itself is somewhat less diverse, and is under the dominion of an unwelcome guest from distant lands. Himalayan balsam is ubiquitous along many urban waterways, and it’s sweet, sickly aroma thickens the air during the summer months. First introduced into the United Kingdom in the early Victorian era, this impressive annual was soon to ride roughshod throughout the country, it’s clusters of pink and white flowers becoming an increasingly common sight along riverbanks and areas of waste ground. The River Cole is thick with the stuff.

The diversity of bird life along the river corridor is impressive, with a wide array of common garden species supplemented by a few wetland specialists. Notable breeders include song thrush, bullfinch, whitethroat and reed bunting. Kingfisher also breeds along the Cole, and keen eyed observers are often rewarded with a brilliant flash of azure and amber. The habitat is the kind of place that you would hope to find a lesser spotted woodpecker, however there don’t seem to be many of these beautiful birds anywhere anymore.

Over the past few years numerous grey herons that frequent the area have been joined by their continental cousin, the little egret. Last winter over 20 of these compact and brilliant white herons could be found along the Cole valley, and even now in midsummer a couple of stragglers are still hanging around. It’s a striking example of how our avifauna is changing – a similar number of little egrets just 20 years ago would have had the national press descending on my little patch of wilderness. The thought that these birds might choose to breed locally is very exciting, although I haven’t found any evidence yet.

The River is eventually culverted beneath a small road, where it enters a heavily engineered section with yet more sluices and a couple of weirs thrown in for good measure. This short section, which is very shallow and frequently filled with paddling children, is the gateway to a strange and wondrous land, the mill pond. The term ‘mill pond’ conjures the image of a small, serene pool, perhaps with a lily-pad or two, but this pond is anything but. To refer to it as a pond is generous, for this is a vast concrete-lined monstrosity filled with a murky green soup that is more bread than water. This glorious piece of deformity is the very archetype of an ‘urban pond’, and a circuit of the surrounding footpath never fails to be of interest. Come with me as we take a tour. Anti-clockwise I think…

We’ll start at the southern end of the pool, where the banks are thick with cherry laurel. The path takes us in a northerly direction along the eastern bank, with the river corridor beyond the path to the east. This part of the river corridor is especially interesting in spring, when thick beds of wild garlic add their rich aroma to the ever present hum of stagnant water and dog mess. For the rest of the year the nettles and balsam win out, but in spring the garlic reigns supreme.

At the southern end of the pool is an island covered with trees and shrubs, which is the favoured hangout of the numerous ‘clown ducks’ that are permanent residents of the pond. These strange beasts are a diverse menagerie of ducks of suspicious origin, cross bred so many times that it’s hard to recognise the species that they originate from. The ‘clown ducks’ don’t seem to be able to fly, and the pure breed ducks keep far away from them, but they seem happy enough with their lot.

The northern edge of the island is perhaps the most interesting part of the pond. Here a number of fallen trees lie in the water, forming semi-submerged stages that are used annually by coots and great created grebes for the construction of nesting platforms. Both species seem to breed successfully every year, and the humbug heads of the juvenile grebes never fail to amuse. Moorhens, mallards and a pair of mute swans also breed here every year, however the most interesting residents of the southern pond zone are rather more exotic. During the blazing summer months a pair of terrapins are regularly seen basking on an emergent log. I first saw them about five years ago, and can only assume that they are unwanted pets that were covertly released into the wild at some point in the past. They may even be relics of the terrapin boom of the late 1980 when, inspired by the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, many thousands of terrapins were purchased as pets and subsequently abandoned or flushed away. If this is the case then their resilience earns my grudging respect, even if they are nasty buggers who eat anything they can catch, ducklings included.

The terrapins are not the only alien inhabiting the grotesque bready soup. Beyond the island is an area where fishing is prohibited to protect the core area used by nesting birds, and naturally it is within this area that the majority of fishing takes place. I recently overheard a fisherman yelling frantically “I’ve caught a fucking crab!”. He hadn’t caught a fucking crab, of course, but what had latched onto his bait was an impressively large signal crayfish. These burly invaders from across the Atlantic have rapidly spread through the waterways of the United Kingdom to the severe detriment of our native white-clawed crayfish, and sadly the River Cole is no exception. They’re fascinating creatures, but they shouldn’t be here.

Beyond the island is an area of open water where most of the wildfowl hang out. During the summer months mallard is the most numerous duck species, and by mid July most of the males have shed their iridescent hoods and opted for their more demure eclipse plumage. During the winter months, however, the mallards are joined by a range of other duck species including the starkly contrasting tufted duck, the russet headed pochard and occasionally the beautiful goosander. All three are divers rather than dabblers, and the goosander is the most special of all. This large, streamlined duck is a member of a family known as the sawbills, and breeds in the northern and western parts of the UK. It is much more commonly seen during the winter where birds turn up on a wide range of waterbodies and watercourses throughout the UK. The males have a black and white body that is strongly contrasted against a head of British racing green, whilst the females (known as redheads) are a beautiful blend of grey and rich brown. Goosanders and other members of the sawbill family have a faintly prehistoric look, and they never fail to thrill me. They also nest in holes in trees, which is bizarre and wonderful.

At the far northern end of the pond, and along part of the northeastern edge, is where the geese tend to accumulate. I’ve counted upwards of a hundred Canada geese using the area at any one time, and their numbers are swelled annually by the arrival of numerous goslings. The Canada geese absolutely dominate this part of the park, and have grazed much of the surrounding grassland to nothing more than bare ground. They also have a tendency to wander into the adjacent road en masse and stop the traffic, which I’m almost certain is intentional. They’re generally a decent bunch, although as with all crowds a few arrogant bastards tend to give the rest a bad name. Their behaviour probably isn’t helped by the sheer amount of bread that the public pump into them. On more that one occasion I’ve witnessed a well-meaning pensioner empty entire loaves of Mother’s Pride into the water with a resounding plop, whipping the geese into a frenzy of avarice. Recently a small number of greylag geese have taken to joining their larger cousins, their striking orange bills easily visible amid a sea of back and white. Although few in number the greylags are capable of being equally as obnoxious as their Canadian relations. I’ve concluded that it’s just a goose thing.

After goose planet has been successfully navigated the path loops around and heads southwards along the western edge of the pond. This area is the most popular with dog walkers and is my least favourite part of the walk, although it’s not without it’s charms. Along this side cormorants are occasionally seen drying their wings, and the path takes you past a brick substation surrounded by sycamores where the mistle thrush breeds. Mistle thrushes are amongst the most aggressive and territorial of all the British bird species, and are most commonly encountered chasing off other birds whilst emitting a harsh alarm call like a demented football rattle.┬áThis edge of the pond is also the best place to watch gulls, if you’re into that sort of thing. Three species generally frequent the pond, although rarer visitors are occasionally reported.

The final point of interest along the western side of the pond is on old oak stump that functions as a rudimentary bird table. Robins and dunnocks are the most frequent visitors, feasting on the nuts and seeds that the public leave for them. It’s certainly an improvement over full loaves of the white stuff!

At this juncture we run out of pond, and the path leads us out onto the road and back into the real world. I continue to find this walk fascinating and enjoyable, and I hope that you’ve enjoyed it too. Urban biodiversity is often overlooked, but if you find the right place there are a vast array of habitats and species to enjoy. Some of them might not be rare, might not even be welcome, but if nothing else they’re incredibly interesting!

 

Fantastic Fungi

I’ve been obsessed with fungi ever since I heard the mushroom joke as a small boy. I was exploring my dad’s record collection, and through the hiss and crackle of a warped 78 I distinctly remember Lonnie Donegan singing about toadstools and dustbins. I was immediately hooked.

For Christmas the same year I begged my parents for a book about fungi, and I can vividly remember the excitement I felt as my small hands unwrapped it. It was the Observer’s Guide to Mushrooms, Toadstools and Other Common Fungi, a tiny tome packed with photographs, drawings and fungal facts. I can still remember every inch of the minuscule dust jacket, red text above a photograph of fly agaric. For the uninitiated, fly agaric is a fairly common woodland mushroom, but to a young boy in the urban waste of south Birmingham it was the stuff of legend. A shiny red cap flecked with patches of white sat above brilliant unblemished gills, the creation of a madman’s fevered dream. As a teenager I would learn that it is also one of the fabled ‘magic mushrooms’, which made it even more exciting.

It was the names of the mushrooms that drew me in. To the serious mycologist (a fungi expert to you and me) English names for mushrooms are a contentious subject. Just like the hardcore botanists out there, most are of the opinion that English names are an unnecessary dumbing down of perfectly good Latin and Greek binomials. They’re wrong though, because the English names are what make an otherwise impenetrable group accessible to the amateur enthusiast like me. Many English names for fungi were deliberately coined in order to pique the interest of the lay observer, and they range from the whimsical to the horrifying. A few personal highlights include the powdery piggyback, lemon disco, the pretender, dewdrop dapperling, hairy parachute, funeral bell, vampire’s bane, destroying angel (eek!) and the flirt. My favourite was, and still is, the amethyst deceiver. Not only is it an evocative name that makes me think of fantastical worlds, it’s also stunning. Seriously, just look at it.

I’m not a mycologist. I’m not even that good at identifying different types of fungi, but I adore them. That’s part of their beauty, you don’t need to be able to identify them to appreciate them. Another great thing is that you can find them anywhere, even in the winter when many other flora and fauna are engaged in senescence or sleep. There are over 15,000 species in the UK, although admittedly this number includes a large number of species of rust and yeast that don’t entirely tickle my fancy. Fly agaric though…

A final fascinating fact is that the things that most of us thing of as mushrooms are actually just the fruiting bodies, responsible for the production and delivery of countless tiny spores. The really clever stuff happens below the ground, or within whatever medium the fungi is growing within. This is where the mycelium live, incredibly complex networks of delicate microscopic threads that take in the nutrients that give the fungi life. Many of these mycelium are vast, covering a much larger area than the visible fruiting bodies. In this way fungi are very much the icebergs of the terrestrial ecosystems.

Incidentally, the mushroom joke is:

“My dustbin’s absolutely full of toadstools”
“How do you know it’s full?”
“Because there’s not mushroom inside”.

In hindsight it’s a terrible joke.

Fickle

They love the bees yet they hate the wasps,
They adore the butterflies but they can’t stand the moths,
It’s flying ant day, got to keep the kids away,
Even though they’ve got nothing to fear.

Stag beetle good yet dung beetle bad,
Ladybirds happy but mosquitos sad,
Thrilled by the dragonflies, bitten by the horseflies,
There are thousands at this time of year.

Ants on the patio and fleas on the dog,
Woodlice and centipedes beneath the rotting log,
Grasshoppers and crickets in meadow and thicket,
Their music a treat for the ears.

Each has a purpose, no matter how small.
Some people hate them, but I like them all.

The Artist

The artist stood in the shade of the new wooden bridge, built last autumn when the old bridge succumbed to time and wuthering. The waterfall was one of her favourite spots, and she imagined angry water sprites barging impatiently over a flight of weathered sandstone steps. She was drawn to this place time and again, finding it changed and new at every visit. Today the dappled sunlight penetrated the shroud of birch, oak and larch, creating rainbows in the spray that filled the air. Her busy pencils etched beauty onto the thick paper of her sketchbook.

She’d lived here for almost ten years, at the edge of the national park in the shadow of the wooded crags. The scenery in this area was her muse, the Meurent to her Manet, inspiring her to capture its majesty with ink, charcoal and paint. The simple line drawings were her favourite, because they allowed her imagination to fill in the gaps. Her imagination was the only thing that came close to recreating the splendour of a landscape that made her heart burst.

The inspiration and the urge to create was almost overwhelming at times, and she found the diversity of perfect views disorientating. Within an hour’s walk she could find silent, secret lochs with untouched sandy shores. She knew the shallow braes, the forest glens and the rocky streams where the dippers frolicked. She felt a solemn sense of responsibility, as though the land had chosen her as its advocate. It was a pleasant burden to carry.

Hours passed. The sun wheeled slowly across the sky as she drew, lost in concentration. Vapour dampened her sketchbook, but her focus never wavered. The result was a sublime rendering of the vista that awed her, the waterfall seeming to tumble and shimmer on the page. She had talent, although she would never admit it.

The artist finally packed her pencils, sketchbook and flask into a sturdy satchel and began the slow walk down the valley side. Today’s efforts were already forgotten, her mind busy planning tomorrow’s adventure.

Microcosm

The trees, grasses and herbs assert their hegemony over the wild places, but diminutive actors stage a quiet rebellion. Lay botanists refer to them as ‘lower plants’, an unsatisfying epithet for a world of indescribable beauty and complexity. Under scrutiny of the surveyor’s hand lens they reveal their infinite secrets.

A specialist, a bryologist no less, would describe to you a world in miniature, an elfin form of the ecosystems and biomes that make up our planet. Arisen from the primal stages of the Silurian era, a vast collective of green and brown jewels occupying every ecological niche imaginable. They favour the damp places, of which the earth has many.

To most, moss is a singular term, describing the springy carpet that ruins turf and clogs the mower. It is so much more. Many hundreds of species inhabit the dank and dewy spaces, from cityscape to mountaintop and all in between. So many forms, from tiny facsimiles of forests to vast rafts of spongy emerald, each industriously working to produce the spores that give life.

The liverworts and hornworts, the lesser know cousins, are arguably more alien and magnificent. Ranging from the diminutive and dendritic to brown smears on clay that rank among the rarest of our flora, each is a testament to the quiet magnificence of simple life. These are the leafy and thallose relics of ancient times, the blessed meek that inherited the earth long ago.

The bryologist’s world in miniature is there for us to appreciate and enjoy. We just have to open our eyes and find it.