Thursday, 2 June 2016

The Epic Ballad of Springtime

It begins with the whispering of a wind which speaks of warmth and Winter's ending. The soft sprinkling of dew on grass that isn't frozen to tiny ice castles. It begins with a sun whose rays are nourishing, slanting through trees whose leaves are buds of green, waiting to burst forward. 

It begins with blossom on a cherry tree, the lining of a street with radiant blooms and the slow hum of pollinating insects; the unhurried waltz of a bumblebee whose legs are stained with pollen. Listen. The insects sing of a Spring awakening as the slim, delicate form of an Orange-Tip Butterfly settles on a newly budded wild mustard plant somewhere by your toes. 

'I want to do to you what Spring does to cherry trees': you read the creased words by Neruda and look up from the book as a blossom falls beside you, its petals a tiny perfection of pink, winking the sun towards you with all the hope of new beginnings. Feel. 

It spreads from the cherry trees to the woodland, where trees which not long ago shed their glowing gowns of autumn auburn before the cold kiss of Winter, clothe themselves again now in the blushing bright green of the beginning of Spring. It spreads to their carpet, now a glowing blanket of bluebells, an inescapable perfume of secret, hidden, precious things, which gives way later to the rampant ramsons, wild garlic, a waving swathe of white flowers against the browns and greens of the woodland floor, dotted with jewels of primroses. Hidden wood anemones and celandines bow their heads before their companions, shy smiles by the wayside. The dark caterpillars of a Red Admiral butterfly make their important ascent up and down leaves of the newly leafed stinging nettles, the labyrinth of holes behind them often the only indication they are there. Watch. 

It spreads from the abandoned nests and sleepy dreys of last year to the wild, frantic activity of mating time. The river livens from its frozen slumber to a babbling, giggling Spring flush of water, rich with oxygen and wild movement within which the cuckoo flower starts to grow and the reeds rise lush and tall. The cuckoo spit arrives, the frogspawn, the hustle and bustle of a river that is not just a home but a hive of activity. The old bank, having survived the unpredictability of winter, is home now to nests; the bright flash of a kingfisher streaks from river to home, river to home, determined to do the best for its brood. Wait. 

The garden becomes a riot, home to more drama than a Shakespearian tragedy, as everyone attempts to do the best for their family. Slugs entwine indiscreetly in trees, their slime trails followed eagerly by hedgehogs just woken from hibernation and determined upon as much prey as can be found. On the bird table, families do battle for the best spots, first pickings on new food. The starling families arrive suddenly in hordes, the blue tit parents chirp anxiously from the nest and, above my window, the house sparrow male calls quietly to his female in her nest under the eaves, and receives the chirps of seven hatchlings in reply. The sparrowhawk mother watches on from her nest as her mate makes a kill, the young of one family essential to the survival of her own. A fox family play amongst the dandelions of an urban garden after the family have all tucked themselves away in bed, their yips and playful fighting likening them to puppies as the parents watch on. Stay awake. Become enthralled. 

In the corn fields, as the crops grow tall under the luxurious sun, the soaring song of skylarks fills the air as you walk slowly down the dirt track worn by many feet of Sunday walkers. Among the stems, a rustle reveals a field mouse, crouched, small nose twitching. An earthworm dries out slowly on the path. At twilight, the crepuscular barn owl swoops silently with wings that make no sound, waiting for the prey that will sustain its brood: hidden in the oak tree, downy chicks hatched days apart to increase the chances of at least one surviving. Back in the wood, the shy badgers emerge from their den with cubs following at heel, enjoying the last warmth of the sun in twilight as they sit and scratch amongst the bluebells. Be patient.

The bubble of activity spreads not only around our waters but in them too. In the ocean, the longer days and increase in sunbeams penetrating the swirling surface give rise to plankton blooms as they photosynthesise more effectively, beginning the food web of so many ocean species. The migration begins; as the days lengthen the terns arrive, partnered with the smartly dressed guillemots, the puffins with their caricature summer beaks, the dashing razorbills. Rocks that have stood untouched all Winter become havens for hundreds of families, cleaving out a life on the bare rock, as the pink tufts of thrift begin to bloom. Experience.

It is the beginning again of a cycle that never ends, that surrounds us and encompasses us just as it always has and always will. 

Listen for the whisper of Spring; the dramatic unfolding of life which is all around. 


Monday, 28 March 2016

Easter: Eggs, Evolution and Existentialism

Easter is the time of year when card-designers get highly excited about Spring. You can't move without a picture of a lamb, or a chick, or a daffodil, dipping it's yellow head softly in an imaginary breeze; a motion Wordsworth would be proud of, immortalised on a card. As a fan of daffodils, chicks and lambs, I'm not against this in the slightest. But, as an aspiring biologist, as I receive my colourful Easter eggs from kindly relations, and read the cards whose pretty yellow borders sing of sunny Spring, I can't help but wonder what made the human race act like this - why is it that we are so devoted to what is essentially just a Sunday? What makes us hold onto this concept that, because of a story that approximately only 32% of the world population believe in, this day is a special time deserving of celebration?

The surface answers are obvious: for Christians, Easter is a celebration of Jesus' resurrection, raised from the dead, from death on the cross for the sins of humanity, by God. It is arguably the most important date in the Christian calender, and the celebration of the most joy, as it illustrates freedom from suffering, the triumph of life after death. Others perhaps, who are not devoted to belief in Christianity - a group I would currently place myself in - perhaps celebrate and enjoy Easter still for the representation of new life and life defying death, but in the more pagan following of Winter with Spring, respite from the darkness and cold and the beginning of new life in the natural world. Eggs, therefore, represent this new life, and work both for delicious satisfaction and for metaphorical meaning as gifts of joy at this time. 

The deeper question, however, the one I really wanted to answer, is this: genetically speaking, why is it that humans have evolved to have this need to celebrate religious occasions, to come together in this way and celebrate what is, in actual fact, just a Sunday. Evolution, of course, is the answer - an idea that would freeze the hearts of the religious population of Victorian Britain: science is behind religion. 

Religious behaviour has occurred in all societies throughout the world at all stages of population development. It holds a genetic basis, which means it is an evolved behaviour, existing in our DNA because natural selection determined it useful for survival. Evolution in this way has given people a genetic pre-disposition, as is also present for language, to learn the religion of their community. From there, culture, not genetics, determines what we learn and what we choose to believe. 

Scientifically, there are two schools of thought as to why this evolution occurred. The first is that religion itself evolved due to natural selection for survival, and is therefore an adaptation giving evolutionary advantage. The second follows the belief that religion was a by-product of different adaptations, without being initially selected for for its own benefits.

This image belongs to Nick Biemans/Shutterstock
It is easy, perhaps, to see how in a hunter-gatherer society, as the human race began in, religious activities and rituals lead to stronger bonds and therefore higher chance of survival through the age old 'safety in numbers'. Rituals such as dancing created social bonds which lead to greater cohesion and cooperation within the group. This in turn makes it more efficient, and leads to a better chance of survival and reproductive success. Social bonds are illustrated in a similar way in chimpanzee groups, wherein grooming between two chimpanzees leads to increase levels of the hormone oxytocin, which plays an intrinsic role in non-kin cooperation. Religion would have served these early human societies, formed of small collaborative groups, as a sort of intangible law through which individuals would be socially obligated to put the needs of the group before the needs of the self, in fear of a 'divine punishment' or social ostracisation. As a result, the group both had a reason to avoid harm to each other, and a belief to inspire confidence in warfare and conflict, resulting in a society which had greater survival rates and social strength. Groups who had some form of religious structure would hence prevail of those that did not, and the allele frequency of genes 'for' religious thought and ritual would become more numerous until they were universal. Religion also became tied to natural occurrences - festivals in Spring and Autumn helping get the crops planted and harvested among celebration, inspiring labour and organisation. The 'God Gene Hypothesis' suggests that a particular gene, VMAT2, predisposes humans towards spiritual or ritualistic experiences, and is seen by some to act as an agent to increased optimism, leading to positive effects on other factors like health and reproductive success, though this has not been convincingly proven. 

The theory of religion as a by-product follows really the evolution of the human mind for consciousness, the realisation that we are mortal and the realisation that one must deal with their
inevitable death. Religion therefore served a fitting purpose for our anxieties - for ourselves, our lives, and about things we cannot, or could not, explain. The coordinated anxiety with others, through the outlet of religion, may have served a reassuring purpose, in which we feel meaning and can therefore manage our fear through the outlet of action.  

belonging to
It is easy, perhaps, to assume a biologist is an atheist. Indeed, when Darwin first published the Theory of Evolution it was considered incredibly blasphemous, against all concept of religion. But really, the idea of religion as an evolved trait perhaps negates neither atheism or religion. Critics of religion emphasise the negative effects caused by extreme religious leaders - in particular warfare and the act of extremist groups who by no means represent the entire religious population. But religion as a means of social cohesion, as a means for survival, in its most basic function of encouraging morality and humanity, is still very much a part of the functioning of today's society. The beliefs of entire religions is in no way represented by the extremist acts of the few, and even the most solid of atheists feel a unanimity in their mutual unbelieving. As a social bond, and a means of facing the reality of human existence, we can see indeed how religion is a trait naturally selected for to improve our chances of survival, as a species. 

After all, religious or not, we are brought together at Easter, to celebrate together new life in the form of eggs and chicks and lambs and daffodils. Whatever social significance it holds and stimulus it arises from, we all feel it.  


Monday, 14 March 2016

From Death comes Life

There is a small churchyard a few roads from my house. It's where I was christened, where my mother rang the bells for twenty years, where my younger brother was christened and countless family friends married. Though I myself am not overtly religious, I still value the church for its memories, and for the tranquillity that can always be found there.

Surrounded on three sides by roads, one of which I walk home along every day, the quiet and stillness maintained between its walls are a small miracle, and this time of year, the yew trees and tall building are lit below with a riotous carpet of colour, the beginnings of Spring.

As I first enter the churchyard, through the small wooden gate that so many different versions of me over the years has passed through, the sound of the road dies away and is replaced by the soft song of a blackbird, hopping along the path in front of me. As I crouch to admire the tree's blanketing cover of crocuses, a robin watches me from the branches, small beady eye daring me to try to get closer to him.

I think about the birds beginning their nests, as I walk the transition from crocuses to primroses to snowdrops, the occasional lesser celandine just starting to poke its head in too. Most of the graves hold cut flowers, but some have beds of living daffodils planted over them, bowing gracefully in the light chill breeze.

While I'm not sure how I feel about religion, I know how I feel about science, and to me the understanding of how these plants death and life and the death and life of the humans around them all influence each other in nutrient cycles to keep new life going, is almost reassuring. The cyclical nature of the seasons and life in this way comforts me in it's simplistic success: it gives death a reason, maybe. I read an article a few weeks ago about renewable ways for your body to return to nature after you die, one of which included using your ashes to plant and grow a tree. I would like that, I think. To give something back.

As I round the corner by the crumbling wall of the church tower, down rows of planted beds of flowers - hyacinth, bell hyacinth, row upon row more daffodils - and my blackbird friend hops behind me, I note the lack of one thing - insects. Perhaps it is too early in the year, the frost still biting too sharp, but I miss them. The lazy butterflies of summer moving gently from flower to flower, first sighting of  a Brimstone and then the Orange Tips and Whites and Blues. But butterfly species are really suffering, at the moment, with a 76% decline of the UK's resident and migrant butterflies in abundance or occurrence over the last four decades ( Butterfly Conservation UK). It makes me sad to think we might run the risk of losing even some of their beauty, so in addition to the huge buddleia bush that flowers decadently at the back of my garden every year, I'm going to try to introduce more butterfly-friendly species into my garden this year, including Ox-Eye Daisies, Dahlia, and Marigolds, all of which will also help support bees, my personal favourite insect, despite the fact I'm allergic to them. I'm also going to try to get involved with the Garden Butterfly survey also run by Butterfly Conservation UK, to do my bit towards their conservation. It's easy, free, and encourages you to sit in the garden just enjoying the life there for a while! For more information follow the link:

I would also encourage all of you to go and spent approx. 15 minutes in your local churchyard, like I did, not only to admire the beautiful life that has a chance to flourish in its sheltered habitat but also, as I did, to find peace.

Monday, 29 February 2016

Spring is springing?

Just a short one now, following the mammoth writing effort of this morning! I wasn't going to write anything at all for a little while, but, important writings call for effort, and today was officially my first blossom sighting of the year :) 

Blossom is one of my favourite favourite things, which I always forget about until the beginning of Spring comes around and I first start to see it again and I remember that I love it almost as much as I love the burnished reds and yellows of autumn leaves. 

I would like to point out, before you even see the photo, that this is my first blossom of the year. It is very tiny, and very new, and was perched too high up on a tree for my (not tiny) reach to get a decent picture with a steady hand. Nonetheless, evidence, I felt, was required, and so I endeavoured to find a blossom that was at least sort of in reach. It was, of course, the last tree in the Sainsburies car park which I checked. And was, of course, right beside a car with a family just getting out of it, who looked at my ecstatic face with no small amount of fear...

Anyway, here it is. I honestly don't know what species it is, for which I am truly sorry; looking it up has so far proved fruitless (potential pun intended) partially because, as I've mentioned, it's very tiny and the photo is very bad, and secondly because of the lack of arboreal knowledge I've lamented in past posts. My apologies also for the darkness of the photo, it wasn't particularly nice weather and was pretty late in the day. Apologies over; here it is. 

If anyone can tell me what species it is by this truly terrible picture which does the joy I felt no justice at all, I will be forever grateful!

So, tiny and new and struggling against the wind in a Sainsburies car park, here it is, my first blossom of the year, Pioneer of Spring.

Weekend in the Wet: The Land of "Stripey Cows"

When I told the girls I look after that I was going to be spending a February weekend in Yorkshire, their old home county, they were particularly insistent that I said "hello!" to the stripey cows for them. And the sheep. Of course.

I did indeed say "hello!" to a field of Belted Galloway cattle, a hardy breed perfectly happy left out on the moors in Winter in the fields above Malham Tarn, but I will admit it was said quietly and from what I consider to be a safe distance - I love many animals, but as a general rule, cows are amongst those I avoid if possible, having been on the receiving end of their parental wrath when aged about 8 years old. Old fears stick, it seems.

That's the second half of the title explained. The first half, as it happens, only applies to one of the two days I was there - the first day, in fact, dawned with a winter sun that brightened the chill of the shadows, the icy streams that criss-crossed the narrow roads gleaming in its gaze. This day was spent at an old childhood favourite place - the Ingleton Waterfalls Trail.

A year round attraction, on this particular day the river shone brandy-coloured in the sun, the path twisting up and up the valley of the River Twiss on a stone hewn trail right beside the river, offering an amazing view of the waterfalls and the feeling you were completely isolated in the valley, a small explorer of long ago, experiencing the woods always as if for the first time.

At the start of the walk, the bottom of the valley, the river is calm and smoothly flowing. It has the air of Sunday afternoon about it, gently bumbling along after accomplishing greater things in its earlier reaches.

It is here that we stopped and hunted for dippers: the giveaway white-splotched rocks sticking out of the river mid-stream our first hint of their presence.

Too fast to photograph, on my unprepared iPhone camera anyway, this small brown bird with its white splashed breast, looking quite the little gentleman, flashes in and out of the water in an instant, darting up and downstream through the crisp air with the speed almost of a kingfisher, and double the validity in camouflage in these mossy woodlands. Rivers at home in Hertfordshire are no territory for dippers, so it's always a joy to spot them when away up north.
N.b. This was also the place where I saw my first catkins of the year!

As we progress into the higher reaches of the river, it becomes livelier, the bubble of the water moving from an adagio to a vivace, a fast, dance like staccato of falling water as we pass from one waterfall to another, from the swift progression of the three Pecca Falls to the vast roar of Thornton Force, which brings to mind much larger cousins in Iceland, and is hewn from the rock almost specifically to the method of a geography textbook.

Following a brisk walk between falls at approximately 1,800ft, my brother and I are distracted from a heated discussion about embryonic stem cell research, of all things, by a soaring buzzard above our heads. Looking over to the snow-capped Ingleborough, with the entrance to White Scar Caves a splash of dark white lower down on its shoulder, I imagine that the buzzard has the perfect view on this clear, frosty day.

My personal favourite fall lies on the River Doe, which we walk down on the return to the Falls Centre in Ingleton. This is the Triple Spout, just above Rival Falls and Baxenghyll Gorge (fantastically dramatic names for fantastically dramatic landscape). Lying in woodland which naggingly reminds me that my arboreal knowledge is by no means up to scratch, this fall has water almost the colour of ale, which cascades tighly round a bend with the sense that it knows exactly where it is going, and will take anything that gets in its way with it. No dippers here, the water moves too fast and with too much volume for them.

  For those who have some sort of a head for heights, a seemingly rickety but of course technically
structurally sound metal bridge is then reachable, offering a look straight down to the Baxenghll Gorge beneath your feet.

The path then continues as the river once again finds its more leisurely way through the dramatic landscape of the other side of the valley through woodlands of silver birch, the bark peeling and shining in the sunlight. While not as rich as when Spring truly arrives, the sound of birds is starting to make its way back through the bare trees, their arms still stark of leaves but now perches for tiny virtuoso tits, robins and the tiny but unmissably loud shouts of wrens.

The second day was more illustrative of 'typical' February weather - as the title suggests, it was wet. Not just slight-drizzle-wet, smack-you-in-the-face-get-you-lost-in-cloud-at-1500ft-wet. The morning began dry, but bitterly cold; there was snow on the ground as we parked at Malham Tarn and breath steamed in the frozen unbroken air. 

A more challenging walk today, which took us down past Water Sinks down the Ing Scar dry valley to a breath-taking reveal of the the height, breadth and grandeur of Malham Cove from above - the limestone pavement.

With grikes (gaps between slabs) ranging from a foot or so to a couple of metres, the slippery rock made interesting walking, particularly when I was completely distracted by looking into the gaps to witness the microhabitats they form. My particular favourite find was the beautifully named Harts-Tongue Fern, but sadly the photo I managed to get was both blurry (I was gripping my phone very tight for fear of it falling in the gap beyond return) and sadly also featured a large amount of litter which had been dropped into the gaps. Disgraceful really, how humanity value rare places like a limestone pavement of this size so much we drive miles to come and see it, only to then treat it like a dustbin. I did identify some plants I saw, however, despite my frustration with humans, and learnt more using this website: Limestone Pavement Conservation.

We then went on to walk to Janet's Foss (another waterfall) through the lovely Malham village and following Gordale Beck, which goes onto Gordale Scar, a waterfall in spectacularly dramatic landscape that was valued even in Victorian Times for its beauty, and is home to many rare mosses and ferns.

(please note this image is not mine, all other photographs on this blog were taken by me. This photo belongs to which is worth a look for more information about conservation in this area!)
Janet's Foss was an opportunity for more dipper-watching time, where one tiny gentleman managed to almost let me get near enough for a clear photo, but not quite. I was also fascinated by the installation of 10 'bee boxes' (see above) through the short piece of woodland that leads to the fall, which smelt of Ransoms even now, months before their peak bloom. The boxes were installed only in the proud ash trees of the woodland, as a gesture to recognise the problems that have been had in the area with Ash-Die Back disease, which has infected 36.1% of all 10k squares in the country ( These bee boxes are an important effort to aid bee conservation, and seeing them was a fantastic addition to the walk, and almost made me forget quite how hard it was raining.

Despite the rain, it was a fantastic weekend of wildlife watching and walking in a spectacularly dramatic landscape that is always worth a visit, despite the weather or the season :)

"I won't know for sure if Malhamdale is the finest place there is until I have died and seen heaven (assuming they let me at least have a glance), but until that day comes, it certainly will do."
-Bill Bryson

Sunday, 28 February 2016

Species Guide: Your Blogger

As a newbie blogger, I find the idea of any of you reading my (hopefully interesting) future ramblings without any context of who I am pretty strange, so to start, here's a simple, non-eloquent, possibly slightly awkward sounding introduction of your friendly naturalist, conservationist, and first class nature addict: Annabel.

Physical characteristics: 

  • long brown hair, good length for being thoroughly tangled by the wind when any considerable amount of time is spent outside. Has been known to contain leaves, mud and/or dried grass, much to disappointment of peers.
  • clothes often (always) comprised of those which can be made muddy at any moment, frequently already muddy
  • not in fact normally covered in meerkats, as above photo illustrates, however if it were an option, I wouldn't be wholly against it.
  • as a general rule, smiling, regardless of weather :)

Habitat: Small countryside town in Hertfordshire, England. Most often found extremely stressed and hence hiding in bedroom and/or escaping into the outdoors with two large golden retrievers, camera and notebook. Excellent at hiding, fieldwork and observing. Less good at remembering to bring a coat.

Behavioural characteristics: 

  • extremely busy, potentially resulting in neglect of blog, but I will do my very best not to let that happen
  • gets extremely excited whenever the phrases 'did you see that' or 'hey I found out this amazing fact the other day' are mentioned. Is proud of this response.
  •  has surprisingly impressive set of field skills and mountain-craft for someone whose slightly skewed sense of balance has them fall over fairly often
  • knows a remarkable amount about odd subjects, such as the phylogenetic  history of whales. Completely fascinated by sea anemones and tardigrades.
  • loves to learn, write, and be in the outdoors 

Aspirations: Frankly, very much hopes that at least one person out there enjoys anything I post.

I feel we're quite introduced now. Welcome :)