Ian Short


Don’t vote Conservative

Here’s a tool by Avaaz to help you decide who to vote for to stop the Conservative Party gaining (more) power:

Avaaz – vote smart.

Mark Avery’s blog post on the disregard for the environment in the Conservative Party manifesto is worth a read:


Tree bumblebees

Recently, there have been a load of bumblebees buzzing around outside a crevice in the wall of one the university building. Here’s a snapshot of some of them.

Several bees were flying round in circles outside the nest, while other bees flew in and out, seemingly oblivious to those loitering outside. Eventually, with the help of this article on tree bumblebees, I figured out what’s going on.

Tree bumblebees are recent arrivals to the United Kingdom (first appearing around 2001). They are spreading rapidly, and are not, as far as I’m aware, considered a threat to other bees. They are common on the continent. In the wild they nest in trees, but in towns they often nest in buildings. Most other nesting bumblebees in the UK nest in the ground, I believe.

The queen bee emerges around March from hibernation. She feeds, then finds a nest site. She then produces female worker bees, most of which go off and collect nectar and pollen (same as for other nesting bumblebees). Around the end of May, the queen produces drones (males whose sole purpose is to mate) and new queens. The drones perform a ‘mating dance’ outside the nest – not their own nest – another tree bumblebee nest. When new queens leave the nest, the dancing drones try to mate with her. And so the cycle goes on; some successful queens establish a second colony in the same year, later in the summer.

The drones fly facing the nest (mostly), ready for a queen to emerge from the nest. Sometimes, in their eagerness to mate, drones fly into each other, perhaps believing momentarily that another drone is a queen. They fall to the ground with a thud. A friend witnessed this, but I haven’t seen it. I did see a couple of queens moving in and out of the nest.

Wildlife at the OU

This weekend we visited Marston Vale Country Park, as we often do, for I’s birthday. There wasn’t much to see… perhaps because of our binoculars skills.


It got me thinking about the abundance of wildlife I see at the OU. The River Ouzel flows through the university (it’s a tributary of the Great Ouse), and birds and insects live near it, and within the reeds of nearby ponds. Wildlife highlights of the area are great crested newts, which you occasionally see wandering around during summer, as well as frogs and toads (in the evening). And I once spotted a weasel near the river. I regularly see kingfishers in the warmer months, as well as sedge warblers and reed warblers, which sing incessantly. Last year I saw a grass snake lying on a path, and others tell me that they are a common sighting. When I used to cycle home at night, I regularly saw a little owl, and I once saw it in the day time too, bouncing along the ground in pursuit of something. Little egrets are regulars, as are bullfinches, reed buntings, fieldfares, goldcrests and redwings (winter) and willow warblers, chiffchaffs, and blackcaps (summer). From my office window I see buzzards, sparrowhawks and occasionally kestrels and red kites. House martins, swallows and swifts arrive at the start of spring. There used to be loads of house martins around the OU, but some of their nests were destroyed, and the population never recovered after that.

We’re looking forward to spring. The wrens have started singing; it must be coming soon.

Blooming bitterns

Today we went searching for bitterns. We persuaded the girls to go along with this by telling them about the booming noise that bitterns make during mating season – booming bitterns. J understood this as blooming bitterns.

Our first stop was Foxcote reservoir near Buckingham. No luck there – it was far too misty. However, the friendly people from the Wildlife Trust at Foxcote advised us that they would be at Calvert Jubilee a few miles away later in the day, and we should try there. The girls seemed game, so we hung around in Buckingham for a bit, before driving to Calvert. When we got there, the Wildlife Trust had a telescope trained on a bittern in the bushes! After a bit it strolled around for a while, and we got a good look. Here it is!


Got it? There was also a marsh tit flitting about near the bird hide.

We walked around the reserve for a while. Last chance to do this in peace as HS2 is to be built through it soon, a great pity.

Buying fish

Eating fish is rather fashionable these days. I don’t fully understand why this is so, but it’s probably largely due to the well-known nutritional benefits of fish (omega-3 fatty acids and so on). What you should remember when consuming fish, though, is that you are eating a wild animal (or a farmed animal fed on wild animals), so you should proceed with the kind of caution that you might take in eating an animal that doesn’t live underwater. For instance, you might feel comfortable eating a rabbit, but I presume you wouldn’t so readily eat a pine martin, a polecat, or a dormouse. But you bought the fish in a supermarket! Does it not follow, then, that it’s a member of a species that is not endangered? No, not at all! In fact, unless you have been prudent, the chances are that the fish you buy is from a stock in trouble.

You could turn a blind eye to this, as many do. Over the years, I’ve considered how best to deal with the issue, and I see two alternatives. The first is to not eat fish. I believe this position is a highly selfless one: you refrain from eating fish to help stocks to recover, and allow others the opportunity to eat them instead. Of course, humans as a species must continue to eat fish, because we have a rapidly expanding population and a shortage of food. By choosing to not eat fish yourself, you help fish numbers to increase, with the hope that fishing will be sustainable.

There’s an alternative view to this, however, which disagrees with some of what I’ve just said. This view is that you should only buy fish caught in a sustainable manner. By doing so, you promote sustainable fisheries above unsustainable fisheries. In the long run, people have to eat fish, and the important thing is to promote good practice in the fishing industry. Roughly speaking, I think this is the view of Charles Clover, author of the influential book The end of the line. I highly recommend that you read it.

How do you buy sustainable fish though? A simple answer is that you only buy fish with the Marine Stewardship Council label on it. There has been some debate about whether all the MSC-labelled products really deserve their label, which I won’t go into. But let that debate not cloud the discussion here: you should not buy fish products without that label. And if you do buy a product with an MSC label, then you may be contributing towards sustainable fishing practices.

The Marine Stewardship Council have a fantastic service that lists all the MSC fish. That links gives the UK version of the site. You can easily find versions for other countries too. You may find that some fish you like to buy are difficult to obtain with an MSC label. What about farmed salmon, for example, which is popular in the UK? Surely it’s okay to eat, as it’s farmed? Why does even organic farmed salmon not have an MSC label?

Well the answer is a little involved; I’ll sum it up briefly. The main point is that farmed salmon are fed on wild fish, mostly, and the origin of those fish is often unclear (they may have been caught by huge trawls ploughing through the ocean floor). It is better for the environment to eat foods further down the food chain – eat the wild fish themselves (small fish, anchovies etc) rather than the salmon. So even organic salmon don’t get an MSC label, as they are fed on wild fish.

Farmed fish have other serious problems too. These domesticated fish inevitably mix with the wild fish, and if enough mixing happens, the domesticated species dominates. But the farmed fish are different to the wild species: they aren’t fit and strong wild animals that swim up rivers; they are fat and more docile. Breeding farmed fish threatens wild fish. As Charles Clover puts it Increasingly, we will be faced with a choice: whether to keep the oceans for wild fish or farmed fish… Were this question to be asked, and answered honestly, we might find that our interests lay in prioritising wild fish and making their ecosystems more productive by leaving them alone enough of the time. We might find that society’s interests did not lie, as the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation has led us to believe, in a massive expansion of aquaculture.

Is organic farmed salmon actually better than non-organic farmed salmon, then? Generally, yes. The farmed fish are kept in better conditions, fed less drugs, less cramped, encouraged to move around more as they do in the wild, and this welfare helps prevent them catching lice that can spread to wild fish.

To summarise, then, non-organic farmed fish really bad, and non-organic farmed fish less bad. However, I’m not being fair here, as I’m only talking about carnivorous farmed fish. That’s generally the sort that people buy in the UK. Some farmed fish are kept in ponds and fed on vegetables. I don’t know much about this, but it sounds potentially very promising.

So often in recent times I’ve heard politicians talking about cutting back on regulations, particularly regulations from Brussels. But the fishing industry is a key example of an industry that needs regulation. To put it bluntly, if you let everyone fish as much as they like, then they will consume all fish, there will be nothing left. Species will drop to levels from which they can’t recover. They will become extinct. Don’t think the seas will be full of jelly fish instead: we’ll eat them too. In contrast, if you regulate fishing appropriately, then fish can flourish, biodiversity can return to the oceans, and humans can eat more fish too. Regulation is the only sustainable way forward.

Climate change – an opportunity for weapons manufacturers

I’ve recently been reading This changes everything by Naomi Klein.  Early on the author refers to a statement by the weapons manufacturer Raytheon, which caught my attention.

Expanded business opportunities are likely to arise as consumer behaviour and needs change in response to climate change.

These opportunities include

demand for its [Raytheon’s] military products and services as security concerns may arise as results of droughts, floods, and storm events occur as a result of climate change.

As the disastrous effects of climate change sink in, Raytheon will be there to supply us with weapons to kill each other.


The first 20 minutes

I’ve just read The first 20 minutes by Gretchen Reynolds. It’s a tour of the latest research into the science of exercise, which has advanced significantly over the past ten to twenty years. The author is a journalist, and it’s written in a popular style. There is no reference list, unfortunately. I zipped through it in no time; here are some of the messages that caught my attention (I haven’t checked the research literature on any of them).

A question that health science has studied is what is the relationship between levels of exercise and health benefits. The latest answer seems to be that a minimum of about three hours walking per week has a huge benefit for health. Any exercise beyond that level certainly is beneficial, but the rate of benefit decreases, and eventually hits a maximum at some extreme point. Beyond that exhaustion point you increase your chances of, say, dying from a virulent flu, or damaging your heart in some way. That point, and how it is reached, varies from person to person.

Intesive exercise is better (for health). Jogging beats walking, sprinting beats jogging. Short burst of vigorous exercise can have the same, or more, benefits than far-longer periods of gentler exercise. These short bursts should be, say, ten sets of 60 seconds, with rests in between of a minute or two.

Don’t stretch before exercise. It has been shown in a number of sports that stretching decreases performance. Tight hamstrings can be better for running that flexible hamstrings: they snap back into place faster. Instead just warm up gently – get the appropriate muscles moving.

Flexibility is largely genetic. We can adjust it a bit by streching, yoga, but in fact if we find that we can stretch farther, then often it isn’t because our muscles are more flexible – rather we have learned to tolerate, mentally the discomfort of the stretch.

Exercise burns calories, so exercising should make us lose weight. There are a few reasons why it doesn’t. The underlying reason, it seems, is that our body has a desire to reach a kind of stable weight, whatever that may be. If we use up calories by exercising, then it makes us more hungry to compensate. Also, it makes us more static, lethargic than usual after exercise, so we don’t burn as many calories outside exercise than we otherwise would. A losing battle, as the author calls it! It’s important to stress here that exactly how the body behaves varies from person to person, and is affected by genetics and the environment – and your own choices.

There are limits to how much your body compensates for loss of calories though. Experiments appear to indicate that beyond a certain limit you don’t compensate as much. Gradually, you work your way towards fitness, providing you behave sensibly. Don’t lounge around outside exercise.

If you want to improve in sport, then you have to keep pushing yourself a little further. Keep a log, time yourself, and so on. I can’t be bothered with that.

Resistance training compliments aerobic training. Weight training and similar activities has multiple benefits: longevity, brain, and it helps with running and other aerobic activities. It is particularly important for keeping control of the function of our bodies as we age. Yoga gets a special mention as an effective, diverse form of resistance exercise. And squats are praised too.

There’s a small section on barefoot running. I’ve been doing this recently, now and then. The idea, roughly, is that wearing shoes encourages us to run on our heels, and land heavily, rather than land lightly on our soles. Experimental evidence on harms/benefits is mixed. One problem is that if you remove your shoes you may continue to land heavily on your heels, but without shoes there you could injure yourself. I sometimes run in the evening with no shoes. I find that I tend to run on my soles more than I otherwise would, partly because I’m a bit nervous about landing on something sharp.

Strength training is the best way to avoid injury.

Exercising helps your brain. It helps slow memory loss. It helps rebuild brain cells. It helps reduce stress. Important for children as well as adults.

Movement is important. Don’t sit at your desk writing blogs that nobody reads. Get up, for the sake of your cells. Walk, walk, walk, as we were designed to do. Sitting for long periods can have significant long-term detrimental effects on our health. So stand up instead, and don’t stay still.


Recently a friend lent me GUT – the inside story of our body’s most under-rated organ by Giulia Enders. It’s rather good. The hook is that it’s a light-hearted tale of the gut, bacteria, and excrement, written by a young and fresh PhD student whose photo occupies much of the front cover. Her prose – or at least the writing of the person who translated from German to English – is straightforward and upbeat. It’s an easy read – just right for me. So let me tell you what I learned…

Toilet procedure. Apparently, studies have shown that you get more satisfaction by squatting to defecate rather than by sitting on a toilet in the usual way. Your rectum opens up properly when you squat; there’s a kink when you sit on the toilet. Haemorrhoids, constipation, and various other bum related problems are common only in countries where people use the usual toilets. Key message here: don’t strain! Enders points out that you can squat on a toilet by using a stool and bending forward.

Saliva. Saliva contains painkillers and benign bacteria for protecting our teeth and help us digest food. We produce one to two litres per day. But not at night though. So we have bad breath in the morning – less desirable bacteria are free to grow without saliva. That’s why brushing our teeth before bed and when we wake up may be a good idea.

Appendix. There is a well-written, brief description of the parts of the gut and their functions. The small intestine absorbs nutrients from food. The large intestine does the same, but in a different, more leisurely way. It contains numerous helpful bacteria to break down food and absorb minerals and nutrients from the food such as calcium and various fats. The appendix comprises immune cells. It disposes of unhelpful germs that may be mixed in with the bacteria. So the appendix is particularly useful for people in places that are rich in dangerous microbes (certain hot countries).

Fat. Fat can contain twice as much energy per gram as carbohydrate or protein.

Coeliac disease, gluten intolerance and lactose intolerance. Coeliac disease is a condition whereby consuming gluten damages the villi that line the gut wall, inhibiting our ability to take in nutrients. Gluten intolerance doesn’t seem to be properly understood – gluten doesn’t cause damage, but it gives sufferers headaches, fatigue, flatulence, or some other condition. Lactose intolerance isn’t really an intolerance is the bodies inability to fully break down the sugars in milk. The undigested lactose makes its way to the large intestine, where it feeds bacteria causing stomach aches and flatulence. Apparently, in 75% of the world’s population, the ability to digest lactose decreases with age. (Reasonable: as babies we need our mothers’ milk, but not later in life.) So less lactose may help our bodies function.

Enders also writes about fructose malabsorption: basically, the circumstance whereby we eat so much fruit that our bodies can’t digest it, which has various negative consequences. Particular problem these days with added sugars and exotic fruits from across the world. Message: don’t go overboard with fruit.

Faeces. Some nice hand-drawn pictures! You should be aiming for, as she describes it, “like a sausage or snake, smooth and soft”. Also, a good sign if it floats rather than sinks rapidly (sinking indicates undigested nutrients). Important to make sure you drink enough too, to avoid hard faeces. Be grateful I don’t use instagram.

Sea squirt. Interesting sea creature this: it roams about in the ocean until it finds a secure rock, and then once settled it eats its own brain. This begins an interesting chapter on the gut and the brain. How problems with the gut, such as irritable-bowel syndrome, can affect our mood, causing depression and anxiety. Conversely, problems with the brain, notably stress, can affect our ability to digest nutrients. Message here: try to make mealtimes relaxing.

The connection between gut and brain is not understood properly.

Bacteria. We are covered in and contain trillions of the them, and exactly what they all are, and what they all do, is an active area of fascinating research. Each person has a different set of bacteria, although many bacteria are common. A large proportion of our bacteria live in the gut, in the large intestine and rectum, in particular. Exactly how your body functions, how able it is to digest a certain vitamin, for example, depends on the bacteria your gut contains – your “gut flora”.

Babies in the womb have no bacteria, but as soon as they are born they are quickly exposed to very many – beneficial ones from mother (vagina, skin, milk), and probably some harmful ones hanging around from the house or hospital.

Cows. Cows consume grass, bacteria in the cows then use the consumed grass to reproduce, and then they themselves are digested by the cow as a source of protein.

In total we receive 90% of our nutrition from food, and 10% from our internal bacteria.

Yoghurt. This is milk which has been pre-digested by bacteria. We eat the bacteria. How healthy the yoghurt is depends on the bacteria used. It’s easier to digest than milk because much of the lactose has already been broken down into lactic acid and small sugar molecules (making it sour and sweet).

Bacteria are used in other foods too, such as sauerkraut, which is more nutritious than cabbage.

Cholesetrol. There are many fascinating experiments involving bacteria reported in the book. One is about an examination of Maasai warriors some years ago. Their diet consisting almost exclusively of meat and milk, yet they didn’t have high cholesetrol. The answer was that the warriors often ate curdled milk, and this gave them a regular supply of gut bacteria capable of processing the cholesterol, absorbing it, or modifying it, to give the warriors a regular level of cholesterol.

Salmonellae. These bacteria are part of the gut flora of reptiles and tortoises. By excreting, the salmonellae end up in grains (usually grown in Africa) that are then exported to Europe for chicken feed. Chicken lays an egg, and the salmonellae from chicken’s bum ends up on the egg. Salmonellae and other bacteria don’t mind being frozen, they live on, but they are killed by high temperatures. So cooking a chicken or egg gets rid of the bacteria, but rubbing it around on our work surfaces can spread salmonellae – enough of it will make us sick. The author recommends (i) use a plastic chopping board (fewer grooves for bacteria to gather in), (ii) wash anything that comes into contact with meat or raw eggs thoroughly, (iii) cook properly. She also mentions the advantages of buying organic (less reptile shit).

Toxoplasmata. Interesting bacteria, this one. They live in cat guts, but transport themselves from one cat to another via humans. Apparently our percentage chance of being infected is about the same as our age. They are parasites – they live in us but give us nothing in return. In fact, they can harm us; it is suspected that they are the cause of strange behaviour in us, recklessness, depression. Studies of car crash victims found, overall, high levels of toxoplasmata.

Worms. Threadworms multiply like this. If one is inside us, then when we sleep, she wriggles down to our anus and lays some eggs. She wriggles around a bit so that we scratch. We get then eggs on our hand and later when we scratch our nose or lick our fingers they end up in our mouth. Then down the gut to the small intestine where the eggs hatch.

Hygiene. To quote, “the higher the hygiene standards in a country, the higher that nation’s incidence of allergies and autoimmune diseases”. Don’t disinfect! You can limit bacteria sensibly by (i) diluting (washing fruit, say), (ii) drying (think lentils, say), (iii) keeping food at appropriate temperatures. Enders warns that kitchen cloths, and to a lesser extent towels, are typically covered in bacteria. We spread bacteria with them; they don’t really clean things.

Antibiotics. Using these is like dropping a nuclear bomb on bacteria – it wipes loads of them out, good and bad. They have no effect on viruses, which are infections of cells (so are wasted on colds). Better to avoid taking them as they wipe out important gut flora. Enders mentions the importance of buying organic meat, because the organic industry places stricter controls on the use of antibiotics for animals (antiobiotic use in animals can be wasteful – builds up resistant bacteria). She also mentions washing fruit and veg thoroughly in case they have traces of antibiotics on them.

Probiotics. Foods are left, or treated in some way, so that bacteria grow on them in a process called fermentation. The fermented food is preserved – resistant to bad bacteria – because of the acidity of the product (generated by the beneficial bacteria) and the beneficial bacteria themselves. Unfortunately, the range of bacteria in fermented products is much reduced these days (because of industrial processes, economy). Food with beneficial bacteria in is called probiotic. Particularly useful to take probiotic foods or medicines after a dose of antibiotics – our gut bacteria need replenishing!

Prebiotics. These are foods that encourage bacteria in us to grow. The good bacteria must already be in the gut, then we feed them to make them multiply. High dietary fibre foods good for this (vegetables, fruits, wholegrain). Her final message is: make sure we feed the good bacteria in us (with a healthy diet)!

Hobbies at Sandy

On Sunday we took a trip to the RSPB reserve in Sandy (it’s the location of the headquarters of the RSPB). As I collected a ticket for the car (free, as we’re members) a guy in the car next to me complained about the £5 fee because there was nothing to see. Nothing to see! He doesn’t know what to look for. It was raining at first, but the row of lavender by the car park was covered in bees, including several species I didn’t recognise (I only know the common ones). After a while, the sun came out, and there were butterflies and dragonflies aplenty.

The highlight of the day, and of my wildlife-spotting summer, was a family of hobbies, who had just fledged, and who would soon fly off to Africa. Good luck to them. The wardens told us where the hobbies had nested, so we walked round the track, eating blackberries, to look for them. Josie went berserk after a while, and I was carrying her round like a sack of potatoes. I put her down in a lovely spot under an oak tree because I could hear repeated chirping of the screechy kind that you associate with raptors. The others caught up, we sat on a bench, Josie brightened up, and we saw the hobbies in a nearby tree, flying back and forth, catching dragonflies. We watched them for about half an hour then went on our way.


J had another tantrum on the way home “I WANT MONKEY BACKPACK”. I had to steel myself not to crash the car. But we made it, and we’ll return to Sandy, next time by public transport (which is possible, but takes three to four times as long).

Quest for the chalkhill blue

On a windy Sunday afternoon we set off for Sharpenhoe Clappers (pretty close to where we live, north of Luton) in search of some chalkhill blue butterflies. I had a slim hope that we might spot some small blues too, but the wind and the children made me doubt our chances.

Sharpenhoe Clappers is a ridge of chalk land, with some patches of ancient woodland, and meadows with flowers. In particular, horseshoe vetch is found in abundance, the food of the chalkhill blue caterpiller. Sharpenhoe Clappers is, to my mind, a nicer place than the Dunstable Downs, nearby. Far quieter, at least.

We discovered that it was even windier on the ridge than it was down low. No shock there. The children played for a while on a rope swing hanging from a tree. While resting in some grass, we spotted some blue butterflies being blown around in the wind. They kept their wings closed, unsurprisingly. The undersides of their wings looked to E and I like those of the common blue, however, there was a kind of blue glow towards their bodies. Inconclusive. Round the corner, downhill a little, and in the shelter, we found more, with their wings open. Here’s one.


Definitely a chalkhill blue! Plenty of horseshoe vetch about too, although not in this photo. I was so pleased that I agreed to carry Isi back to the car on my shoulders. Not so easy these days.

Main butterfly season is coming to a close now. My favourite sighting of the summer was a dark-green fritillary that Ellie spotted on a car in Aston Clinton. Spotting wildlife is all the more pleasurable when you aren’t looking for it.

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