Ian Short



This summer we visited Tarn-et-Garonne, in southern France, staying near the Aveyron river. It’s a great area for butterflies, because of the climate, the soil, and the low intensity organic farming. In fact, so rich was the country for butterflies that it made me wonder why we bother in England desperately trying to protect a small patch of unimproved chalk grassland for a tiny population. The difference in scale got me thinking.

Scarce swallowtails were in abundance (below), and we saw a few other swallowtails too (which looked more like the English ones).

Millions of moths about, including jersey tiger moths like this one.

E’s favourites were the fritillaries, such as that shown below, which looks like a glanville fritillary.

Here’s another…

A highlight for me was this lesser purple emperor.

I rather liked this wasp spider too.

Plenty of lizards of course.

And beetle things…

However, perhaps best of all was the volume of blue butterflies. One here:

and a whole load in this video:

Spring is coming

A stroll through my local patch today revealed the early signs of spring.

Two white-tailed bumblebees greet me at the start. I tried to get a look at their bums. Wrens were in song along the river, their homes in tatters after the carnage left by the modern-day coppicing machines.

Then, a butterfly, first of the year: a peacock, who has survived the winter. She distracts me only for a second, as my attention turns to a squeaking in the willows. Goldcrests, on the move.

Redwings are still about, jumpy. They’ll be gone soon. Two buzzards are squawking overhead.

British Petroleum

BP continues with its plans for extreme deep water oil drilling in the Amazon Reef. I will not buy petrol from them unless they cancel these plans, and I recommend that you do the same. Watch this short video by Greenpeace UK about BP.

Can we trust BP to drill near a unique Amazon coral reef?Local communities are still struggling for justice following BP's Deepwater Horizon disaster, but now BP are trying to drill in even deeper waters, risking a spill near this precious ecosystem. Join the petition to keep BP away from the Amazon Reef: http://act.gp/2vvRfG0

Posted by Greenpeace UK on Thursday, 3 August 2017


Is it really worth destroying one of the beautiful natural wonders of the world, when such places are rapidly decreasing, just for the sake of more oil to burn? What will we have to show for it in years to come? We will have driven around more in cars, BP will be richer, but the world will become barren.

And, fundamentally, burning our reserves of fossil fuels will result in temperatures vastly exceeding safe limits, as this article in nature demonstrates, leading to worldwide catastrophe.

Since BP’s environmentally devastating Deepwater Horizon disaster in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010, BP have had at least five other known oil spills. They are not to be trusted.

The public can stop them drilling in the Amazon. Take responsibility.

Howe Park Wood and Salcey Forest

The best place in Milton Keynes is Howe Park Wood, and that’s where I took I and J this Saturday, for a wildlife event run by Milton Keynes Parks Trust. We were greeted by two privet hawk moths.

The Wildlife Trust were there as usual, and Butterfly Conservation. I was glad to see lots of knowledgeable young people representing the Parks Trust. The girls made hats out of bits of grass and hedge. Then the Wildlife Trust rep showed us an elephant hawk moth in the grass.

I nearly trod on it a few minutes before while taking this picture of a large skipper:

I got this shot of a marbled white as we left.

On Sunday we went somewhere even better, to Salcey Forest. This time the girls had their bikes and they cycled round with me jogging next to them. The place was awash with butterflies. I saw (I guess) over a hundred silver-washed fritillaries, here’s one:

Poor photo that, considering how many there were, but then again I had two children with me, one who was out of view cycling 1/4 mile ahead. Many commas too, such as this one:

There were wood whites as well, at the end of their flight season I think. They don’t stick around for photos.

Then a highlight for me, a white admiral!

I have a lovely video of it. They fly beautifully. Saw about five others later on. One launched an attack on J while she was cycling.

Things got even better when I spotted a white-letter hairstreak.

I saw another later too.

The track is 5 miles long, and as we reached the 3.5 mile mark, there on the track was a massive butterfly: a purple emperor! It was licking the ground, for salt perhaps. It wasn’t shy at all; I could have bent down and eaten it.

Peculiar looking at the photos of it afterwards. In some it looks purple, in others it looks black. We saw another shortly afterwards.

What a day and location for butterflies! At the end we climbed the tree top walk. Here we are at the very top.



Our latest family adventure, during the Whit half term, was to Pembrokeshire, in the far west of Wales. Broadly speaking, Pembrokeshire is a big farm with a lovely coastline and a few towns and nature reserves dotted around. The coastal path is well maintained, but the inland paths that we visited were not, for the most part. I had hoped to see some choughs, and I did, on two occasions. They look like jackdaws but with curved red beaks and red feet (and they are black all over, no grey). There are only a few hundred in the UK, and a good proportion of them are on the coast in Pembrokeshire. There are, however, far more jackdaws on the coast, so you have to scan each jackdaw until you get a chough.

Like ravens, choughs can fly upside down. I didn’t witness this; the choughs I saw squawked a bit, and then headed for their nests, which were on the side of cliffs, so I lost sight of them. Someone told me that choughs were persecuted at the time of the great fire of London because it was thought that, because of their red beaks, they encouraged fire, somehow. I doubted this was the reason for their small numbers now, as the great fire of London was some time ago, and indeed my bird book told me that choughs feed on insects and larvae from  unimproved, short grassland. Not much of that about.

We also saw loads of linnets, stonechats, whitethroats and other small birds that you get in half-decent places. And of course there were plenty of seabirds about, particularly on the islands (Ramsey, Skoma, Skokholm, Grassholm) off the coast, such as guillemots, razorbills, puffins, gannets, fulmars, kittiwakes, and manx shearwaters. We saw some but not all of these.

Weather was middling, so there weren’t too many butterflies about. I was pleased to see a number of painted ladies. They were all faded. I imagined their disappointment flying over to our country, and  discovering that Great Britain isn’t so Great for wild animals. The sun came out on the last day and we saw several green hairstreaks. Then Ellie spotted a dark-green fritillary, which capped the day off nicely.

There were plenty of wild flowers. These common spotted orchids were growing by a roadside.

I took a shine to this flag iris in our garden. It was by a stream, and there were beautiful demoiselles flitting about, mating.

Perhaps my favourite sighting of the Wit half term, however, came the day after we got home. On a fraught trip to Ramamere Heath, just as were leaving, a small blue butterfly made an appearance. I understand their caterpillar’s food plant is kidney vetch, and we couldn’t see any of that about, but nonetheless, it was a small blue. We watched it for a bit, then Isi fell in some stinging nettles, howled, and we left.

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.

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