By-the-wind sailors make landfall

A bit of a stir at work today, when reports started coming in of strange creatures washed up on beaches on the northern coast of the Isle of Wight. One of The Ranger’s colleagues (in fact, a real ranger, not a virtual one) set off to investigate, and brought back these fascinating images of Velella velella, the by-the-wind sailor.

Velella velella, the by-the-wind sailor (c) Richard Temple
By-the-wind sailor washed up at Gurnard, Isle of Wight

What strange, lovely little things. In the west millions of these little corpses have washed up. We seem to have got quite a few thousand, but still an impressive crop. MarLIN describes Velella thus:

Velella velella is an ocean dwelling species that is occasionally seen in the open sea and washed up around British and Irish coasts. Velella velella is a pelagic colonial hydroid. The float, which is an oval disc, is deep blue in colour and can be up to 10 cm in length. Short tentacles hang down into the water from the float. A thin semicircular fin is set diagonally along the float acting as a sail. This sail gives the animal both its scientific (i.e. from velum, a sail) and its common name, ‘by-the-wind-sailor’. The direction of the sail along the float determines which way Velella velella will travel. If the sail runs north-west to south-east along the float it will drift left of the wind direction, if the sail runs south-west to north-east it will drift right of the wind direction. Velella velella feeds on pelagic organisms, including young fish, caught by stinging cells on its tentacles.

So it’s like a jellyfish, but is not one – it is actually a colony of closely associated but separate organisms. Weird! Luckily for us, they are pretty much harmless to humans, so The Ranger and his colleagues can reassure enquirers. In fact, a press release is being prepared to make the best of this interesting publicity opportunity. People do tend to worry about this sort of thing, and it’s an important part of all rangers’ jobs to ensure that they can give reliable ecological information to people. This makes them more comfortable and confident with wildlife. Usually there is no reason for alarm when some unusual wildlife is encountered, but instinct does sometimes seem to take over when a strange spider, snake, fish, fungus or slightly sniffly bird is discovered. It’s a good thing to have ecologists and rangers around to offer some authoritative advice.

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Happy birthday to the Exploding Whale!

For many years Naturenet has celebrated an early internet ‘viral video’, the famous Oregon exploding whale. It was only recently that The Ranger discovered that this remarkable event happened as long ago as 1970 – on 12th November 1970, to be exact, 36 years ago today.

The Oregon Exploding Whale

It’s a tribute to the power of the internet that this bizarre event is so well known, so long after it occurred: largely because it happened to have been recorded on video. If you have either never seen the exploding whale video, or not seen it for a while, The Ranger strongly recommends you go and have a look – it’s been cleaned up and remastered and is now even more spectacularly daft and entertaining. Don’t worry – it’s not particularly gory either. At the risk of spoiling the surprise somewhat, let’s say that the explosion did not quite have the desired effect.

Laying salt on a pigeon’s tail

Today the Ranger had an enjoyable family day out with various relatives. In the course of the day, the group was awaiting a bus and idly observing a host of pigeons. The Ranger mentioned a bit of mythology from his childhood – which he had dutifully passed on to junior Rangers Bill and Jack – that if you want to catch a bird, you need to put salt on its tail. The Ranger remembered nostalgically afternoons as a very young boy chasing pigeons and seagulls along the beach, cursing his bad luck for not having had the foresight to have brought some salt. Because, you see, that’s the thing. It’s one of those tricks that grown-ups play on children. You never have salt on your person when you feel like chasing birds. So the child never gets to put the assertion to the test, and is never sure whether or not it is true. This entertaining but spurious bit of nonsense lore persisted for about the same length of time it took for the Ranger to grow old enough to seek pleasures less simple than chasing pigeons. So it proved with the next generation when he passed the story on.

A pigeon (c) grendelkhan
An unsalted pigeon

But where did it originate? The Ranger was amazed when his mother denied ever having mentioned such a thing to him or even having heard of it. His sister agreed – never had this story been a part of Ranger family folklore. The only support came from the Ranger’s own children – and, as they were swift to point out, this proved nothing as they had in fact learnt it from him. Had he dreamt it? He began to doubt his own memories. The best explanation that the family could come up with was that Grandad Ranger must have told it to him – and as that splendid old fellow died some 25 years ago it would be hard to use him to settle the debate. As is so often the case, Google provided some succour. On his return home, the Ranger sought evidence to back up his increasingly unlikely-sounding memories of childhood salt-inspired pigeon-chasing. To his relief, there were some crumbs of comfort, perhaps the most authoritative being:

E. Cobham Brewer 1810″1897. Dictionary of Phrase and Fable. 1898. Salt on His Tail (Lay) Catch or apprehend him. The phrase is based on the direction given to small children to lay salt on a bird’s tail if they want to catch it. “His intelligence is so good, that were you to come near him with soldiers or constables, … I shall answer for it you will never lay salt on his tail.”— Sir W. Scott: Redgauntlet, 1824, chap. xi.

However the story certainly does not seem to be that common. Finding the reference above does not answer the personal question of who told the young Ranger about the salted birds, which answer is now probably lost in the past. But it would still be interesting to know how prevalent this tricky tale is. The Ranger would love to hear if anyone else has heard this story, and was taken in by it! UPDATE: there’s more to this story! See the great links found by Dave Larkin, below, and the remarkable follow-up he sent.

Help save the Thames rainforest

It’s corny but it’s true. We sometimes spend so much effort looking at all the environmental trouble in far-flung parts of the world that we forget to look after our own. Here’s a prime example. When The Ranger worked for Basildon District Council in the 1990s they were, as they still are, remarkably positive about conservation and ecology, and managed to combine significant biodiversity work with a strong regeneration effort. People sometimes associate Basildon with poor-quality 1960s development. Well, there is some of that, but not much. There’s also a great deal of very high-quality biodiversity and, in the marshes, almost wilderness for those willing to go and seek it out. It was there The Ranger learnt that, with care, it is sometimes possible to build houses, roads and commercial premises and end up with no net loss of biodiversity… or even produce a gain.

Thurrock marshes (c) Greg Hitchcock
Northern ash field at West Thurrock Marshes

One of the things that The Ranger noticed back then was that some of the finest and most exciting habitats and species were to be found right on top of existing or former industrial sites. He recalls one particular location which was a former caravan site – absolutely covered with old burnt-out cars, asbestos, and flytipping. There were more reptiles on this site than The Ranger can remember seeing anywhere before or since. More recently the importance of the Thames Gateway brownfield land and particularly the marshes has become much more well known, with the Thames Gateway proposals for development drawing attention to these previously obscure locations. Brownfield sites in the Thames estuary have recently been dubbed “England’s rainforests“; because of the large populations of endangered wildlife they support. This is no idle hyperbole. Many of these extraordinary sites could be lost. This is particularly ironic, as it is so unnecessary. Many of them are quite capable of supporting remarkable biodiversity even in the middle of intensive development. Sadly, some of those few areas left to provide this vital resource are under threat, whereas by contrast they should be being integrated into regeneration proposals, to provide real enhancement to the Thames Gateway and add value to the region. Buglife is promoting an online petition against this proposal. The Ranger rarely gets involved in campaigns of this sort, and even more rarely promotes online petitions – in fact, this is the only one he has ever endorsed. That’s how strongly the Ranger feels about it. You are encouraged to read up about it and make your own mind up. If you agree, sign the petition too.

HSE: “stormtrooper of health and safety fascism”

Simon Jenkins in the Guardian wades in again with the voice of common sense – this time in an article called “Those who walk under trees are at risk from these terrorising inspectors” he’s commiserating with the poor old National Trust who had a tree fall over on their land at Dunham Massey, and are worried about tree risk.

Trees at Dunham Massey (c) Martin Jordan

Trees at Dunham Massey

With typical gusto Jenkins compares the Health and Safety Executive to stormtroopers, fascists, and, for good measure, Guantánamo Bay. But whilst his wrath is magnificent, he has allowed it to carry him to such heights of righteous finger-wagging that he weakens his own argument, thus offering ammunition to those who would further constrain tree-management with regulation. He writes:

The HSE is… continuing its inquiry, to pin a case on the National Trust for criminal negligence under the Health and Safety at Work Act. The crime, presumably, is neglectful ownership of any tree that might fall over in a high wind. If the Trust can be found guilty, lawyers for the bereaved family may sue it in the civil courts for damages. The cost in litigation alone will be enormous. The case has traumatised the National Trust and its park staff nationwide. They are responsible for 6m trees under which millions of human beings wander daily. Should they chop down every old tree, or only some, or close all treed areas to the public? Nobody knows. The case applies to all landowners in the public domain, which under the right to roam could rise to billions of trees. When Trust staff are asked what most concerns them, they no longer cite lack of money or visitor numbers or interfering management. They cite the HSE. This body, with its terrorising inspectors, its box-ticking approach to safety, and its agents enforcing its edicts to the letter, is feared and loathed with equal passion.

The Ranger, as a former NT manager and also currently in the position of being responsible for some of those ‘billions’ of trees, has to take issue with some of these assertions. It may well be that HSE are being heavy-handed here – or maybe they are not. Perhaps it will need a judge to decide that one. But either way Jenkins is ranting outside the realms of reality here. Let’s pick some of this apart.

The crime, presumably, is neglectful ownership of any tree that might fall over in a high wind.

An erroneous presumption. ‘Neglectful ownership’ is not in itself criminal. Any tree might fall over in a high wind. Yes, any tree. Even the best-managed and most recently inspected tree. Owning a tree which falls over is not in itself a crime and could not be. A crime, as Jenkins implies but neatly skirts around explaining, could be neglect of the duty of care that a landowner and employer has to take reasonable steps to ensure that their trees do not harm people. But that doesn’t really trip off the tongue, does it? Let’s proceed.

The case has traumatised the National Trust and its park staff nationwide… Should they chop down every old tree, or only some, or close all treed areas to the public? Nobody knows.

Quite the contrary. They know perfectly well what to do with their trees, in almost all cases. They may not always have done it – but that’s a different argument entirely. Park staff are very unlikely to be traumatised nationwide – although no doubt a few of those involved with the case at Dunham Massey are rightly a bit worried. The National Trust have one of the best and most well-known policies on tree safety that exists in the industry. It has been used since 1997, has been tested in legal cases, is widely copied, and was one of the first such policies to seriously address the issue of combining the public and trees in different conditions. The basic idea is to risk-assess trees and groups of trees, zone them, and inspect accordingly, recording the process. The policy gives an achievable strategy to achieve this that most public tree owners could reasonably easily follow. Not only do the NT have a presumption in favour of public access in areas with many trees, they also are very concerned to keep ancient trees going when many other less-enlightened bodies would fell them. No, the image of all tree-managers wringing their hands in miserable confusion is simply wrong. The question is not likely to be “What shall we do with our trees?”, but “Can we show we actually did what we know we should have done?”

When Trust staff are asked what most concerns them, they no longer cite lack of money or visitor numbers or interfering management. They cite the HSE.

Well, do they? And did they ever cite the former issues? If the Ranger knows the National Trust, one thing you won’t get from their staff is a consensus on anything. This one might, actually be true. But without a source it’s simply incredible.

…all landowners in the public domain, which under the right to roam could rise to billions of trees.

Finally, ‘billions’ of trees. Well, a quick look at the Forestry Commission website suggests that in England, there are some five hundred million publicly owned trees. It seems likely that billions are not really on the cards. Sorry, Sir Simon. NT staff are a canny lot, and their forestry people are some of the most enlightened in the country. If Jenkins had started his tirade with an incident involving, say, any one of many hundreds of local authorities, he might have given his argument a little more credibility. Not every organisation has the policy and practice of the NT, or if they do, they cannot demonstrate it so readily. Indeed, Jenkins may well be right in his fundamental point. But sadly, he has picked the wrong exemplar this time.

The Darwin Awards feature Scottish snakes

Oh dear, where’s St Patrick when you need him? Isn’t he done over in Ireland yet? It seems that in 2005 an unfortunate hillwalker called Robert McGuire was bitten by two adders while holidaying on the Isle of Arran. He spent six days in hospital. Pretty unusual – although the adder is the only snake found in Scotland it’s not particularly common. Even when encountered, adders usually flee and very rarely bite. And even when they do, the bite even more rarely causes an adverse reaction. And as for two snakes… well, what are the chances?

An adder (photo: Hammond Eggs)

However, perhaps this incident wasn’t as odd as it first seems, once you read the full story as recounted by the Darwin Awards. To give you an idea:

Mr McGuire described the moment he was bitten. “I was out for a walk with my brother Steve and his kids. We were going off to have a picnic at a local beauty spot. “The next minute, one of the kids ran up and said there was a snake in the grass. I just thought it was a grass snake. “I just bent down to pick it up so my brother could take a photo with his mobile phone. Suddenly a massive black snake just appeared, so I picked that up too. It was then that the second one just sank his fangs right into my hand and then the other one did the same to my other hand.” Mr McGuire told The Scotsman that he had not been particularly concerned about picking up the reptiles as he did not believe there were venomous snakes in Scotland.

Well, fancy. Imagine those nasty snakes being cruel enough to bite him. And poor Mr McGuire is undoubtedly regretting the woeful state of his knowledge of UK snake populations. He’s probably had plenty of advice about herptile distribution now, so perhaps the Ranger won’t further add to the poor fellow’s troubles, except, of course, by drawing your attention to them!

The Ranger’s spam rant

Spam! The curse of the internet. In February 2006 the Ranger posted an analysis of his spam showing some 1000 spam emails per day, and bemoaning the situation. Well, it’s no great surprise but the amount of spam received has more or less doubled. Check it out:

Spam graph

Spam received at Naturenet in late 2006

From hovering around the 1000/day mark, after 10 months spam is now heading clearly towards 2000, and what’s worse, there’s an upward trend. It’s a constant annoyance that Naturenet is obliged to actually pay a very good filtering service just to avoid this rising tide of filth – and most of it, sadly, deserves no better description. Remember the fun we used to have in Usenet only 10 years ago, before spam simply swallowed it up? No? You probably don’t because the internet moves so fast. Email has proven a great deal more tenacious than usenet. Predictions of its demise from overspamming are common, but unfounded. But at heart, email was the first, and is still the most personal and best part of the internet. Instant messages and web interfaces come and go, but email endures. The Ranger will continue to report his spam levels from time to time. but don’t expect any good news just yet.

Natural England… reading the runes

Today The Ranger attended a seminar across the water in Winchester, to talk about the biodiversity of Hampshire. Of particular interest were some of the obiter remarks by Merrick Denton-Thompson, former Hampshire County Council countryside planning supremo and a recently-appointed member of the Natural England board.

Natural England logo
Mmm, nice logo

Merrick prudently prefaced his presentation with the proviso that it was only his personal views, and not any official statement. It’s always dangerous to read too much into off-the-cuff remarks but it is true that at present any colour smoke from the chimney of Natural England is of interest, as many in the industry, like The Ranger, are watching with great interest to see the deeds as well as the words, and maybe divine which way the new organisation will jump, or indeed, whether it will just sink to its knees. The Ranger cadged a pencil from a colleague and scribbled on the back of the agenda two of the more striking things that Merrick said.

Natural England needs to be locally accountable through existing local democratic arrangements. It is not good enough to be just accountable to the Secretary-of-State.

This is an interesting proposal – and one to be expected from a time-served local authority man. However, it might have considerable merit if implemented properly. The Ranger would suggest that the Environment Agency’s sometimes impotent Area Environment Group arrangements are not a good model to follow. He hopes that Merrick has in mind a more rigorous scrutiny arrangement.

We have got to do something about public perception of the environment. English Nature hadn’t found the right ingredient to really spark public interest. They forgot that the public is our prime customer. We’re going to have to make that connection between town and country.

That was an assertion that this ranger found quite exciting. Admitting the problem is a big step forward. EN really didn’t crack this one, despite some heroic efforts – Local Nature Reserves, for example – and never actually looked as if they were going to. Merrick went on to identify the BBC Breathing Places campaign as a key example of what he meant by this. And lo, on the Natural England press release list today is a press release called “A Natural Health Service” talking about just that. Maybe this new organisation really could be doing something.