Surrey Dormouse Group trip to British Wildlife Centre

Winter is a quiet period for dormousers. The dormice are hibernating, so we wash our dusters, enter our data onto the national database, and put our feet up. Here in Surrey we’ve not quite been hibernating – 30 of us met up at the British Wildlife Centre for a meeting to celebrate our achievements from last year, and discuss plans for 2016. And, of course, to see the wonderful collection of animals they have there.

It’s always good to have an excuse to visit the British Wildlife Centre. The runaway show stealers for me were the otters (as always). It wasn’t great weather for photography (very little light), but here are a few of the more acceptable snaps I took.

Red Squirrel
Red Squirrel
Red squirrel looking into a camera lens (shame the lens cap was on!)
Red squirrel looking into a camera lens (shame the lens cap was on!)

Low carb(on) diet

January is the traditional month for dieting. While I don’t usually go in for that sort of thing, this year I’m giving it a go. But this is a diet with a difference – not Atkins, or 5:2. No calorie constraints or low GI. This is the low carb(on) diet.

I’ve been thinking about climate change quite a bit lately. It’s getting hard to ignore. While negotiators were in Paris, thrashing out how nations could cut emissions, I’ve been looking at my own life, to see where I could make carbon cuts. The house is pretty carbon efficient by now, so no obvious gains to be made. I use a green energy supplier. Most of my journeys are done by public transport or walking, and we chose our car partly on its low carbon emissions. The next area I need to tackle is what I eat.

Food production, storage, packaging and transport are responsible for up to a third of human-caused greenhouse gas emissions. I was staggered when I learnt that. I’d always assumed it was all down to flights, electricity generation, 4 wheel drive cars and those gas burners you see outside pubs (hence not my fault). But food…?!

We all need to eat.  But some foods have a higher carbon footprint than others, so changing what I eat can help to reduce my carbon footprint. I’ve been looking into how to do this. It’s not straightforward – carbon emissions aren’t printed on the packaging like calories are, so it needs a bit more work. Here are some tips I’ve picked up:

  1. Don’t waste food – an obvious one really. Food waste means resources are wasted producing, transporting and packaging it. Rotting food in landfills also release methane. I’ve been getting better at reducing my food waste recent years, planning out what I’ll eat each night at the start of the week, and buying only what I need (not random things I like the look of but don’t make a sensible meal).
  2. Buy seasonal and local food (or grow my own) – again, I do reasonably well at buying local, seasonal food, partly because I get most of my fruit and veg from my town’s wonderful Food Float, a stall in the High Street that sells food from local producers. Farm shops and fruit and veg box schemes are another way of eating more seasonally (although I struggled with food waste when I used to have weekly veg boxes – I wasn’t organised enough). I’ve had mixed success at growing my own fruit and veg (mainly because the wildlife in my garden tends to out compete me for it – hence the image above), but it can certainly reduce your food miles. Yes, it does mean some sacrifices (winter in Britain means lots of root veg, and no exciting soft fruit). But no-one said we can carry on as normal while getting serious about climate change.
  3. Cut down on meat and dairy, especially beef, lamb and cheese: ruminants like cows and sheep are responsible for a lot of greenhouse gas emissions. And their feed also has a high carbon footprint. If I am serious about doing my bit to combat climate change, I can’t ignore this. I’m not the world’s biggest carnivore – I only eat meat once or twice a week. But I am a true Devonian, and love dairy products – milk, cream, and especially cheese. I’ve occasionally had to go dairy-free, and I am not good company then. Sadly cheese is a big offender – it takes lots of milk to produce a bit of cheese. I am not going to cut meat or cheese out of my diet completely. But I am reducing how much I eat. I am eating more fish and less red meat. And I am trying to come up with lower carbon alternatives to my usual cheese sandwich for lunch.
  4. Don’t buy air freighted food: transporting food by plane rather than ship releases 30 times more carbon. Sadly food labels don’t usually say how something has been transported. So, the first tactic relates to tip 2 – buy locally produced food. When buying food from far away, be careful about fresh food that doesn’t last long (eg. soft fruits or fresh fish) – they’re most likely to have been flown in. Shipped frozen fish from far away has a smaller carbon footprint than fresh fish that has been flown. Missing out on strawberries, grapes and cherries over winter is no fun, but at least England always has a good supply of apples through the winter months. (If I were only allowed one sort of fruit from now on, I’d pick apples anyway).
  5. Avoid processed and over-packaged food: Packaging food and drink uses resources. Obviously some packaging is necessary, and can help reduce food waste by making sure the food lasts longer and doesn’t get spoilt. But I’m sure you can think of examples of unnecessary packaging. Buying fruit and veg from the market / farmers market / Food Float / farm shop usually means the packaging is kept to a minimum. It’s harder at the supermarket. Processing food uses energy, whether the processing happens at home or industrially, but some processed foods contain carbon-hungry sweeteners or preservatives that you wouldn’t use at home. Heavily processed food is often the worst offender with packaging as well. So, to tackle this issue, I’m going to have to think about packaging when I’m shopping. I guess I’ll also have to try to make more of my meals from scratch rather than buying processed alternatives. My lunch is the biggest area in this category that needs improvement, as I often end up popping to a sandwich shop. I need to get better organised with buying ingredients for lower carbon lunches.

It’s not going to be easy, and will require sacrifices. But climate change could make a massive impact on our food security, so I need to do my bit. Do you have any tips for lower carbon eating?

Riversearch December 2015

Once again I’d left my Riversearch survey til the last moment, so ended up squeezing it into my busy Christmas Eve. (I did get questioned by a passerby as to why I was out ‘working’ on Christmas Eve, who couldn’t quite believe that was how I choose to spend my leisure time). The weather wasn’t very tempting for a riverside stroll that morning. But rain is no excuse to put off a Riversearch survey – in fact, it may be better, as it allows you to see any runoff from fields, roads and pipes. So I donned my wellies and headed out. By the time I got out there, the rain had eased off somewhat – there were even glimpses of blue sky.

Like the rest of the country, we’ve had quite a lot of rain lately. Thankfully we’ve escaped the flooding other areas had. While the ground was boggy and the water level high, at least I could walk through the meadow – exactly two years ago I wouldn’t have been able to do that, as it was completely submerged.

Winter is always a good time to do the survey for my stretch – the nettles, himalayan balsam and other plants have died back enough to allow me to see a lot more of the river bank than usual. The main finding of interest was pollution coming from a few of the pipes in the riverbank. There was quite a lot of white foam on the river, building up in places, but that seemed to be coming from further upstream. I don’t know what it was, but definitely something to report.

Aside from that, the only other notable finding was a mystery nest, lodged a couple of feet up a sapling on the riverbank. Any ideas what might have made that?

Mystery nest
Who’d live in a nest like this?

Wildlife Garden Challenge for 2016

I love a challenge. Particularly if it involves lots of plotting, scheming, research and planning. So, inspired by my recent success in the Surrey Wildlife Garden awards, my challenge for 2016 is to make my garden even more wildlife-friendly.  I want to do something each month to improve my wildlife garden.

Why is it important to make our gardens wildlife friendly? In a densely populated country like England, gardens make up a large proportion of our green space. Gardens have become increasingly important as farming practices have changed, reducing the food sources and shelter for wildlife that was traditionally available in our countryside. Gardens can be brilliant for wildlife, but they can also be deserts – just because something is green doesn’t mean it’s wildlife-friendly. If everyone with a garden took some steps to make their garden more wildlife-friendly it could have a big impact. (You don’t need green fingers to do this, nor do you need to let your garden get as scruffy as mine!)

So what’s my garden like for wildlife at the moment? I took stock of it a few months ago, when applying for the award. It’s not doing too badly for a patch only 7m by 7m. But I’m convinced it could be even better.

I spent new year’s eve sitting by the fire, listing all the things I could feasibly do to make my garden more wildlife friendly.  I’m not going to tell you what all the ideas are now – you’ll have to keep following to find out. To help keep track, I’ve added a wildlife gardening menu to my blog, where you can find all my posts about wildlife gardening. Some of the activities will be quick wins (helped by kind Christmas presents from my family). Others are bigger projects that will take more time, energy and money, but potentially have a larger impact.

Dr C has kindly agreed to go along with my plan, which is just as well, as I’ll need his muscle power for some of the ideas. Now all I need is a dry weekend day to get cracking!

Why not join me on this #wildgarden2016 challenge over the year? Seeing wildlife move in to the new habitats I’ve made in my garden has been massively rewarding. We could share ideas, encourage each other, and report back on changes we see. If you’re up for it, leave a comment or tweet using #wildgarden2016 .

Need some inspiration? These websites are helpful:

British Animal Challenge 2015 round-up

Happy new year everyone! Before we plunge into whatever the new year has in store for us, I find it helpful to reflect on the year that’s just gone. It’s been a tough but interesting year for me work-wise, but on a personal level I think there have been more ups than downs. Some of the most memorable moments have been wildlife related – the hedgehog walking past our toes when we sat in the garden at dusk; snorkelling with seals; finding dormice for the first time at my dormouse monitoring site; winning the Surrey Wildlife Garden awards, and seeing some species in the wild for the first time.

Back at the beginning of 2014 I set myself the challenge of seeing, in the wild, every species of British animal. This includes mammals, amphibians and reptiles but not invertebrates or birds. There are approximately 107 species on the list. By the end of 2014 I had seen 45 of them (seeing 11 for the first time in 2014).

2015 was a mixed year for my British Animal Challenge. I targeted reptiles, amphibians and bats in the first half of the year, but didn’t make any progress on those. The second half of the year was much more successful. I saw red squirrels and lesser white-toothed shrews during my trip to the Isles of Scilly. And, after lots of attempts and many hours, I finally managed to see a water shrew and some harvest mice.

This year I’ve only ticked off five new species:

Adult red squirrel
Adult red squirrel


This takes my total up to 50 – not quite halfway there. I’m doing well with some classes:

  • 5/7 British insectivores
  • 10/14 rodents

Others I’m still a long way off, particularly bats, amphibians and cetaceans.

I’m not sure what my focus will be for next year, as I haven’t worked out where I can go on holiday. But I live in a good place for reptiles and bats, so that’s probably a good start. And I’d love to see an otter in the wild…

Whatever’s in store for the year ahead, I hope we all have a wild and wonderful 2016.