Tuesday, 28 December 2010

Signs of the times: Autumn #5

More comparisons between the British countryside of today and that from 1959-1961 in the paintings of Charles Tunnicliffe in the Ladybird "What to look for..." series of books.

"The downy seeds of traveller’s joy fill the air, & driving before a gale appear like insects on the wing."

Reverend Gilbert White (From: "Journal for 23 November 1788")

(Copyright: Ladybird Books)

Autumn Picture 5
Three of the first five Autumn pictures involve, or revolve around, scenes of harvest as it was undertaken around 1960. A beautiful barn owl sits, under a (September?) harvest moon, with some very large hay ricks or hay stacks in the background on the edge of a village. Above the owl, the red berries are ripening to purple on a specimen of the wayfaring tree, and the feathery seeds of the traveller’s-joy plant surround the fence post on which the bird sits.

There is a high likelihood that this image represents a southern English location, as, although barn owls are found over much of Britain, both of the featured plant species have a native range restricted to the south (but more on them shortly). The barn owl (Tyto alba) is a rarely glimpsed creature, but is probably most commonly seen as a ghostly white form in your car highlights while driving on country roads. I’ve only seen a barn owl a few times and always on that basis. The British Trust for Ornithology says of this species: “The unearthly shrieks, cries and hisses of the Barn Owl (and its association with churches) may have given rise to a widespread association of owls with all things evil - an owl’s wing was a key ingredient in the witches brew that troubled Macbeth.”

The barn owl is one of our middle-sized predatory birds, like most of our owls, usually hunting by night for small mammals (e.g. mice and voles). The barn owl is so well equipped for its mode of hunting, with large, forward-facing eyes that, like ours, help them to spot their prey in low light conditions, very acute hearing that will allow it to pinpoint prey in pitch black conditions (its ears have a slight asymmetry which introduces a minute delay in hearing between the ears, helping with the targeting), long, sharp, hooked talons to increase the chance of a capture when it strikes, a sharp, hooked beak to dispatch the unfortunate victim and feathers with a downy leading edge to allow near-silent swooping down on the prey. What a package! How unfortunate, therefore, that the countryside we have been creating doesn’t seem to suit this amazing predator. And not just here in Britain: The “Birds of the Palearctic” reports that there has been a widespread decline in the barn owl which has been attributed primarily to intensive farming methods and urbanisation, leading to “loss of foraging habitat, nesting and roosting sites”. Pesticides and road mortality “are further negative factors.”

Even if things were going well for the barn owl, the population size fluctuates naturally with its rodent prey populations, and is also affected by increased mortality in hard winters. The BTO reports a British summer population (in the period 1995-97) of 3-5000 pairs. The decline in the barn owl population is not just a modern phenomenon either – it has apparently been happening since the 19th Century, then at a lower rate until the 1940s, and then more marked after 1955. So, even by the time that this painting was published in 1960, the barn owl was a rare, precious commodity in our bank of nature!

But the species hasn’t been abandoned to its fate just yet. The BTO tells the tale here of how, in earlier decades, “the plight of such a charismatic and popular bird led to extensive releasing of captive-bred birds in well-meaning attempts at restocking: by 1992, when licensing became a requirement for such schemes, it was estimated that between 2,000 and 3,000 birds were being released annually by about 600 operators, although many birds died quickly and few would have joined the nesting population”.

More recently, the erection of Barn Owl nest boxes, “already numbering c.25,000 by the mid 1990s, has enabled the species to occupy areas (notably the Fens) that were previously devoid of nesting sites, and may have been a factor in improving nesting success.” Provisional survey data for the UK show an increase of 464% since 1995, with the caveat that nocturnal species are difficult to monitor accurately. This trend suggests that the current population estimate is much too low, so maybe things are looking up for this lovely bird.

The wayfaring tree (Viburnum lantana) is more of a deciduous shrub than a tree. Shown here with its berries ripening from red to purple, it is native, effectively, to the Home Counties and maybe Wales, although the New Atlas of the British and Irish Flora indicates that it is now planted widely as part of roadside planting schemes and shows its introduced range extending up into central Scotland. The native range has changed little since the original 1962 Atlas. While Richard Mabey’s “Flora Britannica” points out that its flowers smell like lilies, there isn’t much else to say about it!

The other plant shown here is the traveller’s joy (Clematis vitalba), the only native clematis we have in Britain (I think). It is shown here with its feathery seed heads, that earn it the common name: “Old man’s beard” (and it has also been known as “Father Christmas”!). The New Atlas describes it (in admittedly dry technical terms) as a: “climbing perennial with liana-like woody stems, often covering large areas on hedge banks, hedges and walls, trees and scrub, sand dunes, disused quarry faces and ruins. It is a classic railway plant.” Furthermore, “[c]omparison of the current map with the 1962 Atlas suggests that the distribution of C. vitalba is stable.”

Friday, 24 December 2010

Merry Christmas...

We here at Scottish Nature Boy would like to wish all of our readers (and especially our followers) a very Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year!

And furthermore, a dear friend who lives in Alaska shared this with me earlier today and I can't think of a better way to share festive cheer than passing it on to you! Enjoy!

Wednesday, 22 December 2010

Technology is so enabling! (I hope...)

Sorry to subject you to a wee trial but this post is simply a first attempt to blog from a new Android phone. I'm hoping this will facilitate more frequent posting on my part!
Published with Blogger-droid v1.6.5

Tuesday, 21 December 2010

Total eclipse of the moon

I posted a shot of the moon at the end of last winter, here, to accompany a wee poem. This morning is another good day for lunatics, with the final lunar eclipse of the year, coinciding with the day of the Winter Solstice, the first time this coincidence has occurred since 1638! I woke this morning to hear about the eclipse on the "Today" programme on Radio 4 (regular source of morning wisdom) and wrapped up warm to go out and take a couple of pictures (it is still -10 degrees Celsius outside!).

Eclipses are one of the great dramatic spectacles of nature, particularly the rarer solar eclipses, when the Moon passes exactly between the Sun and the Earth. As the discs of the Moon and the Sun (coincidentally, whatever anyone else says!) are the same apparent size in our sky, solar eclipses are pretty dramatic, with the Sun, the brightest object in our lives (other than Stephen Fry, obviously), completely obscured for a few minutes.

21st December 2010: Lunar eclipse, about 07:25, 15 minutes before the totality
21st December 2010: Lunar eclipse, about 07:30, 10 minutes before the totality. The Moon is beginning to look slightly red at this stage.

Lunar eclipses are more modest affairs, but still very impressive and occur much more frequently than full solar eclipses. They occur when the Moon, Earth and Sun are aligned in a single plane, in that order, so that the shadow of the Earth is cast over the Moon. As the Earth's shadow at the distance of the Moon, is larger than the disc of the Moon, the earth completely blocks any direct passage of sunlight. When the eclipse is full, the only light shining on the Moon's surface is sunlight that has been bent around the Earth's rim, passing through the atmosphere (I can never remember if that is refraction or diffraction. Diffraction, I think. Mr Beveridge, my High School Physics teacher will be ashamed of me!). So, the light hitting the Moon has a red hue as a result of dust in the atmosphere (I think), and the Moon turns red. Today's lunar eclipse was a good example of this - an astronomer in the "Today" programme item said that earlier cultures (he didn't say which ones), understanding the relationship between the length of the lunar cycle and women's menstrual cycle, believed it was the red colour was the Moon giving back fertility to the Earth. Hmm.

21st December 2010: Lunar eclipse, about 07:40, with the totality of the eclipse now imminent. The Moon is now an amazing red colour.

Anyway, it was bitterly cold out there today, but very clear, and I managed to take a few shots in focus. As a lazy photographer, I don't yet really understand how to work my Canon digital SLR properly and I'm sure these could have been better. Sadly, the Moon dropped further, behind a cloud layer and disappeared from sight, otherwise, I would have photographed its emergence from the eclipse. Shame!

For some reason, this morning's activity made me think of this - we had a (if not THE) Dark Side of the Moon facing us for a few rare moments this morning:

Sunday, 19 December 2010

Signs of the Times: Autumn #4

More comparisons between the British countryside of today and that from 1959-1961 in the paintings of Charles Tunnicliffe in the Ladybird "What to look for..." series of books.

"...Then in a wailful choir the small gnats mourn
Among the river sallows, borne aloft
Or sinking as the light wind lives or dies;
And full-grown lambs loud bleat from hilly bourn;
Hedge-crickets sing; and now with treble soft
The red-breast whistles from a garden-croft;
And gathering swallows twitter in the skies."

John Keats (from “To Autumn”)
(Copyright: Ladybird Books)

Autumn Picture 4
A bit of a shorter account this time around as there are no species featured here that I haven’t already written about in this blog series. Nevertheless, here is another attractive Autumn image to enjoy; it does seem like ages since we saw the swallows, house martins and sand martins massing on wires and roofs in preparation for their southward Autumnal migration. In reality it was only a few weeks ago (maybe early-mid October here in Stirling?) when the last birds finally headed off on their long, risky journey to the heat and relative comfort of sub-Saharan Africa, wherethe food supply of flying insects, unlike in the Britishwinter, isn't jeopardised by low temperatures!

I have already posted, in some cases quite extensively, on the three related species, the swallow (Hirundo rustica), the house martin (Delichon urbicum), and the sand martin (Riparia riparia). In all three cases, I reported on a variable recent history for these species, which seems to be linked to the arrival or otherwise of seasonal rains in the Sahel and other sub-Saharan desert regions where these birds spend their time during the European winter. You can read more about the swallow in earlier posts here, a post including the house martin here, and I looked at the fate of the sand martin in Britain over the past 50 years here.

Perhaps it is the very obvious departure of these summer visitors, their “here one minute, gone the next” exodus that makes their massing for migration such a strong symbol of the departing warmth of summer and the ushering in of the shorter, colder days of Autumn. It always seems as if swallows and martins reappear much more gradually in Spring than they disappear in Autumn!

Looking forward to their return in 2011...

Wednesday, 15 December 2010

Signs of the times: Autumn #3

More comparisons between the British countryside of today and that from 1959-1961 in the paintings of Charles Tunnicliffe in the Ladybird "What to look for..." series of books.


Beneath the willow wound round with ivy
we take cover from the worst
of the storm, with a greatcoat round
our shoulders and my hands around your waist.

I've got it wrong. That isn't ivy
entwined in the bushes round
the wood, but hops. You intoxicate me!
Let's spread the greatcoat on the ground."

Boris Pasternak

(Copyright: Ladybird Books)

What a brilliant picture this is, so much of its time; the subject, families going “hopping” in Kent, to help with the annual hop harvest, the unusual tilted roofs of the oast houses (or hop drying barns) visible in the background. The text says: “September is the time for hop-picking, when large numbers of people come from the towns to help harvest them.” In 1960 maybe, but no longer. As a regular practice this died out during the 1970s and 1980s as hop harvesting became more mechanised (and presumably as people became generally more affluent on average and many took a different kind of summer holiday?). The lovely O, herself a Londoner, thinks the expression "hop it", or "hopping it", survives from the time that Londoners quit the city to work on the hop harvest in Kent and elsewhere.

As described by a great website, “The Oasts of Kent”, hops (Latin name: Humulus lupulus L.) are cultivated climbing plants “whose dried female flowers became a vital ingredient in the brewing of beer, which overtook traditional ale (brewed with just malt) in popularity following the introduction of hops in the 17th century. Hops add flavour and aroma to beer, making it clearer and less perishable. Thanks to hops, the modern British drink of 'bitter' was born.”

The website "Romany Road" also describes the history of hop growing in England: “Traditionally hops were first grown in Kent in the 1520s, but soon spread to other counties including Herefordshire, where the crop was extensively cultivated in at least 80% of the parishes for over 400 years. Hop-picking terminology varied across the country. A hop garden in Kent was known as a hop-yard in Hereford, a hop-bin in Kent was a crib in Hereford, whereas an oasthouse in other areas was called a hop-kiln in Hereford.”

To supply the new ‘bitter’ brewing industry, the growing of hops expanded commercially. Again, from “The Oasts of Kent” and as shown in the painting here, hops “were grown in 'gardens,' which consisted of a wire framework suspended above chestnut posts. From these wires, lengths of string were suspended and the shoots of the hop plants were trained up these strings from the hop crowns, planted in the ground. The gardens were strung and maintained by stilt-walkers (a highly specialised job) and the mature hops were harvested by hand in August. Most gardens were located in the southeast of England, although an area around Herefordshire, Worcestershire and, briefly, Shropshire and Gloucestershire was also important... The crop was picked by thousands of workers, most of whom came from London and treated the experience as their annual holiday.”

Other than the large quantity of beer drunk in Scotland, which required hops for the brewing process, I thought there might not be a Scottish angle to this story until, recently, after I’d cycled from Haddington to Longniddry in East Lothian, on a cyclepath  and footpath that was once a railway line, my Dad pointed out that I had cycled past a large feral hop plant growing beside a large ruined house next to the former railway. despite living up here in ARCTIC Scotland, this hop plant produces useable hops, so I think another visit late next summer will be in order for a wee bit of hop harvesting of our own. I fancy a wee home brew made with local Scottish-grown hops - that will be a novelty!

Sunday, 12 December 2010

Sign of the times: Autumn #2

More comparisons between the British countryside of today and that from 1959-1961 in the paintings of Charles Tunnicliffe in the Ladybird "What to look for..." series of books.

"Delicious autumn! My very soul is wedded to it, and if I were a bird I would fly about the earth seeking the successive autumns."

George Eliot 

(Copyright: Ladybird Books)

Autumn Picture 2

This busy little picture shows a number of species exploiting a fine crop of blackberries growing on bramble briars. Three young starlings at the top of the picture have been joined by two greenfinches below. A number of wasps are also feeding on the berries. I looked at starlings earlier this year, and you can read all about them here. I won’t say any more about starlings now, except that these three birds have plumage that is mid-way between juvenile and adult.

We haven’t looked at the greenfinch before, and this picture presents us with an adult male (on the right) and on of this year’s young. A "stout-billed seed eater" (also taking fruit and berries), the greenfinch (Latin name: Carduelis chloris) is one of my favourite garden birds. My digging efforts in Spring are often accompanied by their twanging "tweeee" calls from twittering flocks in the tops of the trees in our and surrounding gardens, and their bright acid green plumage is a welcome splash of colour after the (usually) long winter. Greenfinches have adapted remarkably well to human settlements and rarely stray far at least from suburban areas. In autumn and winter, they will move out into the countryside to feed on stubble fields(if they can still find them in these days of winter-sown grain crops).

The British Trust for Ornithology reports an interesting population story for greenfinches in Britain. The point of this series of blogs is to look at changes in British wildlife over the 50 years since these books were first published. The BTO says, as illustrated in the graph below: "Greenfinch abundance varied little up to the mid 1990s, and there was little change in either survival or breeding performance during this period". More recent data have indicated "population increases widely across the UK, followed by a sudden sharp fall induced by a widespread and severe outbreak of [a parasitic disease] trichomonosis that began in 2005".  The Royal Society for the Protection of Brids provides useful information here on this outbreak, and how you can help the RSPB to monitor its spread.

(From: British Trust for Ornithology)
 As with the starlings, this series of blog posts has looked previously at wasps, here, and brambles, here. Autumn is the time of year when wasps, drunk on the alcohol from fermenting wild fruits like brambles and garden fruits, become more irritable and rather annoying. Most wasps that we see over the summer are workers and will die over the coming autumn, with the queen wasps hibernating (for example, in my log pile and under the insulation in my loft!), to emerge in Spring, build new nests and form new colonies.

Signs of the Times: Autumn #1

Apologies for the recent absence of posts here - the extremely bad winter weather and closed offices has meant that our PC was tied up with home working and there's also been lots of work to do at home in preparation for the festive season - but I'M BACK!

More comparisons between the British countryside of today and that from 1959-1961 in the paintings of Charles Tunnicliffe in the Ladybird "What to look for..." series of books.

"Autumn is a second spring when every leaf is a flower."
Albert Camus

Well, when I started out on these blog posts based on the four Ladybird books in the "What to look for in..." Spring, Summer, Autumn and Winter series, I didn't expect to be starting the Autumn book when it was nearly the end of November and there was snow lying thick on the ground outside. But hey ho, sometimes the business of life intrudes. I did start the Spring book a little late and I've never quite managed to catch up but I'm happy to carry on and try to finish Autumn and Winter books before the end of March!

Here's the cover of the Autumn book, a lovely image that we'll revisit in due course:

Copyright: Ladybird Books

The Autumn book in the series was first published in 1960. To set the scene for the posts to follow on the 24 pictures making up the book, here are the inner cover notes that provide an overview of the book's contents:

"There are many, many things to look for in autumn, just as there are at any other time of the year. You will, of course, soon find such things as blackberries and hazel nuts, but if you know where to look, you might also find the nests of the wood wasp hanging from twigs, or a bumble bee's nest in the bank - in which you might even discover a field-mouse curled up. You can look for the large flocks of various kinds of birds, some in their young plumage, others fully adult, and some still half-and-half; and sometimes you will find all the males together in one flock, and all the females together in another. This book will tell you many other interesting things that you can see."

So, let's go and have a look at Autumn, shall we?

Copyright: Ladybird Books

Autumn Picture 1

This first autumn picture from 1960 is a classic view of a traditional post-harvest scene. In the foreground, a stoat is running past from field mushrooms. Wood pigeons are feeding on grains from a harvest of oats (according to the picture's accompanying text) has been stacked to dry in bound bundles known as "stooks", waiting to be threshed in the field or gathered up for stacking. Once dry, these stooks would need to be threshed to separate the grain from the stalks.

Traditionally (historically), this threshing would have been a manual operation, perhaps on the ground using flails, subsequently replaced during the mechanisation of agriculture by a separate threshing machine. By 1960, when the Autumn book was published, the era of the separate thresher was coming to an end as new-fangled “combined harvesters”, or what we now call combine harvesters, were being introduced, mechanising the whole harvesting and threshing (but not baling) processes into a single piece of agricultural machinery.

Interestingly (and thanks to Christine H for pointing this out when I discussed this subject with her recently), on many small crofts in Shetland, harvested grain crops are still formed into stooks, and I found an interesting blog, Laplandica.com, which describes this in words and a picture. My Dad, born in the 1930s, well remembers seeing the appearance of stooks at harvest time when he was growing up in Ayrshire, and their subsequent formation into haystacks (were they calle dhaystacks even when they were for straw?). He remembers that there was a real knack to building them up, such that the upper bundles that formed the pitched “roof” of the stooks both kept the valuable grains dry and also managed to shed any rain in a way that kept the rest of the stack dry.

The wood pigeons in the picture are presented as engaged in the activity that raises such enmity from farmers, eating the bounty of harvest! My old AA Book of British Birds says of the wood pigeon (Latin name: Columba palumbus): “No bird is a greater enemy of the British farmer than the gentle-looking wood pigeon, largest of our pigeons and doves. Practically all year round, it ravages crops...” Consequently, the wood pigeon is also one of the most persecuted wild birds in Britain. Despite the high level of shooting to control their numbers, however, the population of wood pigeons has increased more or less steadily and steeply since the mid 1960s, as shown by the British Trust for Ornithology:

Of this increase, the BTO says: “The spread of intensive arable cultivation, especially of oilseed rape, which has been shown to promote overwinter survival, may explain the rise in numbers.” For the UK as a whole, the wood pigeon population has increased 160% since 1967. You can read more of the story here.

The stoat running across the stubble field, distinguished from the closely related weasel by its greater size and the black tip to its tail, is probably hunting for field mice which have been left bereft of shelter. The Mustelid family to which it belongs is a really successful part of the Order Carnivora. As well as stoats, the Mustelidae, a mammal family found world-wide, includes weasels, polecats, otters, badgers, martens and skunks. Like all the members of the Mustelid family in Britain, the stoat (Mustela erminea) is an extremely agile and capable predator, feeding mostly on small rodents, rabbits (and hares?) and birds. My Collins Field Guide, “The Mammals of Britain and Europe” (by David Macdonald and Priscilla Barrett) describes the killing technique of the stoat as a: “precision bite to [the] back of [the] neck”. No messing about there...

The Great British Public sees stoats regularly on television, or at least their pelts or fur. The stoat, as many of you will know, has fur that turns partly, or in northern regions wholly, white in winter, triggered by a combination of falling temperatures and genetic inheritance. That white pelt, with its little black-tipped tail, made stoat fur important for the fur trade as “ermine”. And that is what traditionally provided the white fur trim to the red robes worn by the Peers in the House of Lords. Not the nicest role for a stoat to play, admittedly, but a very high profile one, nevertheless.

The Joint Nature Conservation Committee’s Review of British Mammals provided an assessment of the conservation status of stoats. Sadly, the principal reason we have an estimate of the British population of stoats (around 462,000 in Britain, of which 180,000 in Scotland), as with a number of other species, is the National Game Bag Census, in other words, the reports by gamekeepers of the numbers of stoats they have killed. It seems that humans are generally pathologically incapable of sharing their environment with any wild carnivorous mammals. Pre-historic Britain had large predators with sharp teeth (wolves, bears), which humans eradicated, both as perceived predators of people (although there is little evidence that wolves systematically hunt people) and also competition at the top of the food chain, including preying on domesticated animals.

Systematic hunting and killing, and habitat destruction (principally deforestation) made their eventual extinction in Britain inevitable. That left the “middle-ranking” smaller predators, such as otters, the red fox, stoats, weasels, wild cats and pine marten, polecat and, to some extent, the badger (it has a much more varied diet than solely carnivorous). None of those species posed any direct threat as predators of humans but they have all been persecuted to greater or lesser extents, particularly over the last couple of hundred years and, it seems to me, particularly from Victorian times onwards, as predators of game species (grouse, salmon, pheasants, etc) favoured by the wealthy and powerful.

The JNCC review reported that, at the start of the 20th Century, stoats were “still abundant despite relentless persecution”. Then, however, populations were then “severely reduced for 15 to 20 years following the outbreak of myxomatosis” (which severely reduced the rabbit populations which form an important part of the stoat’s diet). From 1960 to 1976, “the number of stoats killed, as recorded in the National Game Bag Census, doubled, but the number killed in northern areas declined again after 1965”. However, since the mid 1970s, the number of stoats killed by gamekeepers throughout Britain has declined again. Reasons for this decline are unclear. Since the number of rabbits killed nationally has continued to increase, a further rise in the stoat population might be anticipated. However, “any rise in fox numbers may be a contributory factor to the failure of the stoat population to increase in response to rising rabbit numbers, since increasing fox numbers can lead to a decline, or even local extinction, of stoat populations”. Ecological relationships are complicated, aren’t they? But then, I never claimed this was going to be easy.

I’ve nothing much to say about the rather vaguely drawn field mushrooms in the picture – there are much better fungi examples and stories in the pictures to follow!

Friday, 26 November 2010

Down in Brick Lane, in a basement retro clothing sale, the 1960s and 1970s live on...

I wanted them all...

... and you should see the psychedelic tie I came away with instead... maybe another time!

Signs of the times: Summer #24 - and a farewell to all that!

More comparisons between the British countryside of today and that from 1959-1961 in the paintings of Charles Tunnicliffe in the Ladybird "What to look for..." series of books.

"See how steadfastly they stand
the cormorants of Lympstone Sand
in ranks, like booties on parade,
with all their better parts displayed.

They face up nobly to the wind
and neatly tuck their tails behind
and number off from left to right.

Their hearts are true. Their eyes are bright.
They never twitch or jig about
But hold their heads high, chest puffed out
and perk their bills up, if you please,
to smackbang forty five degrees.

These cormorant of Lympstone Sand
defer to none in all the land
nor ever let their bearing flag
lest some fond souls might think them shag."

Ralph Rochester, "Cormorant"

(Copyright: Ladybird Books)

Summer Picture 24
Oh, why has Summer felt like such a long season (in blogland, at least)? Here we are in November and I have FINALLY reached the final picture in the Ladybird Summer book! I find it interesting that the final three pictures have been around the seashore. I think that old Charles Tunnicliffe was well aware that, in terms of the approach of Autumn in Britain, as well as the harvest, the shortening days and the fall of dead leaves, the arrival of the birds that will spend the winter here is another key indicator – and they must, of necessity arrive first at the coast! While many species, like the redwings and fieldfares, will move on inland, the wading birds and many of the waterfowl will stay largely on the coast where, even in very cold winters, they will generally be able to feed on our many large estuaries. Hence, the selection of this image as the closing chapter of Summer in this (somewhat extended!) coverage of the Ladybird Summer book.

This picture is exclusively about birds – waders and waterfowl, gathered around the half buried ribs of a large wooden ship. A cormorant stands on one of the ribs drying its wings, lifting them into a breeze. Left of the centre of the picture, a solitary grey plover stands near some bar-tailed godwits, under the wooden ribs. Below them, a larger flock of knots stands, with a large flock of knot banking and turning against the slate grey sky in the background. In the foreground, a small flock of young sanderlings has landed down by the waterline.

I’ve always been really rubbish at identifying wading birds, especially the ones that arrive here in the winter, so it is lucky that the book provides text to tell me what is what here. In fact, the cormorant (which is not a wader anyway) is the only species here that I’d be confident in identifying without recourse to a bird book! So let’s start there…

A common, native, year-round resident fish-eating waterbird, the cormorant (Latin name: Phalacrocorax carbo) is a species that can raise high passions amongst the angling fraternity, where it is perceived to be a major consumer of the fish species also sought by trout fishermen. My old AA Book of Birds describes the cormorant, rather colourfully, as follows:

Voracious, large-beaked, reptilian in appearance, the cormorant can consume more than its own weight of fish in a day.”

It’s a great line but it isn’t true (although the belief is probably still widespread among anglers. Managing conflicts between predators of commercially important prey species and the human exploiters of those prey is one of the key challenges for conservation in the UK (hen harriers/ red grouse, or peregrines/ racing pigeons also spring to mind) and the importance of good, sound, scientific evidence in developing policies to tackle these conflicts can’t be underestimated. And there has been quite a lot of research into the importance of cormorants as predators of stillwater fisheries in Britain, for example, from Loch Leven in east central Scotland. What is clear that male cormorants weigh 2-3 kg, while females are in the range 1.7-2.5 kg, and they usually require 4-500g of fish a day, well less than their own body weight. If you want a good explanation of the issues and how fishery managers are recommended to deal with their cormorant “problem”, there was a very useful fact sheet produced in England by the Fisheries and Angling Conservation Trust, along with a wide range of environmental, angling and conservation organisations. The most up-to-date information on trends in cormorant numbers is provided by the British Trust for Ornithology which suggests that the trend is for an increasing population, with over 9000 breeding pairs in the period 1998-2002. The BTO also says: “There was a 10% increase in the UK population between full surveys in 1985–88 and 1998–2002 … Trends during 1986–2005 show decreases in Scotland and in northeast and southwest England, but no trend in Wales, and steep increases inland in England and in regions bordering the northern part of the Irish Sea... Reasons for recent decline probably include increased mortality from licensed and unlicensed shooting.” The overall increase in population size was 37% between 1995 and 2008:

 Coming back to the bird in this picture, unlike many waterbirds, the cormorant’s plumage is, somewhat inconveniently for a diving, fish-eating waterbird, not waterproof, hence the reason that they often stand on rocks or, as here, other waterside structures, wings out-stretched to dry off in the wind after fishing.

The solitary Grey Plover (Pluvialis squatarola), on the centre-left of the picture is, for all its drab winter plumage shown here, a representative of a rather interesting species. I can’t do better than quote, again, from the AA Book of Birds: “The grey plover, drab in its grey-brown winter plumage and sometimes looking the picture of dejection as it waits on the mud-banks for the tide to turn, is a vastly different bird on its breeding grounds in northern Russia and Siberia. There, in its handsome summer plumage – grey-spangled, white-edged and black-breasted – it plunges and tumbles acrobatically in the air and will boldly attack marauding skuas that come too near its nest.” So, there’s more to this little tundra-loving, Cossack of a wading bird than meets the eye…

The BTO reports that around 53000 grey plover spend their winter in Britain, with perhaps 70000 passing through on migration and that, globally and in Europe, the species is not of conservation concern (although it has an “amber” warning status here in the UK – although it doesn’t say exactly why! Just something about Britain having an important non-breeding population). In winter, it feeds on our estuaries and coasts, mostly on marine worms, crustaceans and molluscs. From the above, I would say it seems unlikely that it has declined since the publication of these Ladybird books, but it is hard to be sure from the published evidence I can find. I did find, in the “Birds of the Western Palearctic”, however, that there has been a major recent increase (recent in their terms, being in the 1990s!) in the grey plover population of north-west Europe, this presumably including Britain.

Standing under the cormorant is a flock of five bar-tailed godwits (Limosa lapponica), which will have arrived on this British shore from Scandinavia or northern Russia, again to spend the winter here (or perhaps in transit to a destination much further south, using the British estuaries as staging posts, to rest and refuel on their migration flight. Like the grey plover, another wading bird that appears drab in winter plumage, the male bar-tailed godwit has a magnificent pale chest in the summer breeding season. The “Birds of the Westrn Palearctic” reports maybe 60,800 individuals in Britain in winter, while the BTO reports 62,000 winter birds. This species is not of conservation concern at European or Global level and its population may have increased within its breeding range. Interestingly, the BTO reports that, quite remarkably, Bar-tailed godwits from Alaska over-winter in New Zealand, but make the 11,000 km journey without stopping, which takes around seven days, probably the longest non-stop journey of any bird.

The largest flock on the shore is the small pale grey wading bird known as the knot (Calidris canutus). Yet again, this tiny wader makes enormous migratory journeys, from their breeding grounds in the far north of the Arctic in huges flocks to over-winter further south, arriving on Britain’s coasts in late summer and on into October. Many are only here on passage to further south, but huge flocks do remain for the winter. In fact, the BTO provides a figure, for the British wintering knot population, of 284,000!

What Charles Tunnicliffe has done in this picture is to include the knot, both as a flock in the foreground, but also as a massive wheeling flock in flight in the background, against the slate-grey sky. I grew up watching such unbelievably massive flocks of knot as a common winter sight on Aberlady Bay, east of Edinburgh, where I spent many cold winter and hot summer childhood days plodding across the nature reserve, my “Boots the Chemist” 8x30 binoculars in hand. Knot form these massive flocks, presumably for the same reasons as starlings are thought to do so – to reduce their individual chances of being taken by a raptor, most likely a peregrine falcon, and maybe because, by spending time roosting together, they are able to reduce heat loss and hence conserve energy during cold weather. And just like starling flocks, knots in flight wheel and bank apparently nearly simultaneously, with the effect that they flash light as you see all of their undersides turn towards you at once, the almost disappearing as they wheel back in the opposite direction, their darker backs against dark winter clouds. And the flock produces a hissing of wings if you are lucky enough to be near one in flight. One of Britain’s great estuarine spectacles, in my view, and one that is worth seeking out if you have the chance.

And so, and so, to conclude this series of blogs on the Ladybird Summer book, one final candidate species, in the nearest foreground of the picture, a small flock of ten young sanderlings. Yet another wader that breeds in the Arctic and comes to British coasts in the winter, where it prefers sandy shores, the sanderling (Canutus alba) can be described as a small pale wader that scurries along the tide line, restlessly looking for food, in the form of the small crustaceans of sandy beaches. In reading around for this article, I discovered a little bit of biological trivia that ties in with this distinctive movement of the sanderling: according to the BTO, “Uniquely amongst British waders, the Sanderling has no hind toe - giving it a distinctive running action, rather like a clockwork toy, as it darts away from incoming waves on the beach edge”! Perhaps 21,000 birds spend the winter here and the BTO describes little conservation concern over the status of this species in Britain, Europe or globally. Nice to end the Summer book and its blog posts on a small positive note!

Thanks for reading along so far, and for all the interesting comments. Hopefully, you’ll stay with me as I head into the Autumn book 9and try to catch up with the seasons bit – I DID start the Spring book late and have been playing catch up the whole time! On, on to Autumn (p.s. It is snowing heavily outside tonight! Did anyone see where Autumn went?)...

Thursday, 11 November 2010

Signs of the times: Summer #23

More comparisons between the British countryside of today and that from 1959-1961 in the paintings of Charles Tunnicliffe in the Ladybird "What to look for..." series of books.

“Kali frae Bali in classroom three,
 Swallaes her chippataes wi a cup o tea.
Dod Jean an Donna sit doon tae dine,

On a parten an a labster frae the ocean brine.”

From: "Doric Food Rap" by Sheena Blackhall

(Copyright: Ladybird Books)

Summer Picture 23
Here we are again, still at the shore and in a rock pool AGAIN! I’m not really sure what the purpose of this picture is in the set of Summer pictures as we’ve looked at rock pools already on a couple of occasions. These later pictures are meant to be taking the reader towards Autumn (and the next book in the series), when the rock pooling summer holidays season is long gone…

My, this is a busy rock pool full of crustaceans, with a large lobster, an edible crab, a hermit crab inhabiting an old common whelk shell, a large prawn and a smaller shrimp (in the bottom right). I can’t tell what species the little shrimps/prawns belong to, so, other than to note that there are unlikely to have been significant declines in these species in the last 50 years (just my professional opinion!), I don’t intend to say more about them here.

The lobster shown here is a member of the famous, gastronomically-popular “common” lobster species(Homarus gammarus), for which Scotland’s rocky coastline supports a small but, given the high commercial value of individual lobsters, significant commercial fishery. The Scottish Government publishes annual fishery statistics, including a report of the total tonnage of lobster landed. In 2009, 1100 tonnes of lobsters were landed at Scottish fishing ports, little changed from the previous few years. For comparison, the 1960 fishery statistics reveal that 889 tonnes of lobsters were landed in Scotland by British and foreign vessels, more or less the same as in 2007, so perhaps lobsters are fished at a level that their population and productivity can tolerate, there apparently being little change in the last 50 years in the weight removed by the fishery in Scottish coastal waters. In its deep, lower shore rock pool, this particular lobster may well be safe from such fisheries but not necessarily from hand-collecting by divers. Lobsters in UK waters may be found down to about 60 metres depth.

The edible crab (Cancer pagurus), the one that has a shell that looks not unlike a pie crust (!), is also a widespread species around Scotland’s coast, which also supports a significant commercial fishery. In Scotland, the edible crab is also traditionally known as a "parten" or a "parten crab" - I only just found out that the word "Parten" in Scots Gaelic means "crab"!

The most recent fishery statistics published by the Scottish Government show that 9500 tonnes of edible crabs were landed in Scotland by UK vessels. By comparison, 1960 fishery statistics for Scotland indicated that 32,556 British hundredweight, or 1654 tonnes, of crabs were landed. Now, unlike lobster, the modern edible crab catch is much larger (nearly six times higher) than the 1960 figure. This may indicate that the fishery was underexploited in 1960, compared to the level of fishing it could tolerate. It might also indicate that the fishery has become more efficient (most of them have – I once read that there is an estimated 2% per year improvement in fishing efficiency as a result of “technological creep”). Without contradicting that previous statement, it might also mean that the edible crab fishery is taking more crabs out of the system than is sustainable in the long-term, although the figures from 2005 – 2009 are relatively stable, so who knows? I really don’t know very much about how we regulate shellfish fisheries in Scotland – there may or may be a quota for edible crabs.

Hermit crabs, of which there are several species in British coastal waters, are well-known for their habit of protecting their soft bodies within the old shells of dead gastropod molluscs (“snails”) such as, here, the common whelk Buccinum undatum. As they grow they have to move into increasingly larger shells and as a result they have been used in many choice and competition experiments by ecological researchers. I think hermit crabs might just be one of the most popular elements of rock pool fauna for young children when they go rock pooling (I speak from distant personal experience). There’s something very entrancing about their lifestyle, with its recurring need to keep finding a new home.

Saturday, 6 November 2010

The fallacy of cheap anything! *sweary alert*

This isn't my normal subject area for blogging but I was shown this last night and wanted to share it, not least because (A) it is fantastically funny and, (B) it shows how effective satire can be at highlighting how much we are being conned by, in this case, big business (and even more precisely, in this case, a certain budget airline). In fact, probably much more effective than a normal journalistic approach, as it pokes fun and pricks the skin of the liars!

I have heard and enjoyed these three gals on and off for years on Radio 4 and I wasn't aware that they were still treading the boards, let alone as effectively and comically as this! (Mum - if you are reading this, and I'm pretty sure you will, there's sweary stuff - but it is funny and in a good cause!).


Wednesday, 3 November 2010

Signs I Like #15

This is Scotland...
Heaven forbid that we should actually encourage
anyone to play any sport or take any exercise on their local green spaces.
Got to keep it neat and tidy after all!
And I mean, we wouldn't want to encourage that nasty, brutish, noisy,
Celtic shinty nonsense now, would we ...?

Signs of the times: Summer #22

More comparisons between the British countryside of today and that from 1959-1961 in the paintings of Charles Tunnicliffe in the Ladybird "What to look for..." series of books.

With blotched brown uppers and undersides light gray
They feed on sea weed beaches all the day
Some times in pairs or small flocks though seldom one alone
These little wandering birds called Turnstone.”

Francis Duggan, from “On seeing a pair of turnstone

(Copyright: Ladybird Books)

Summer Picture 22
The last three pictures in the Ladybird Summer book, this one and the following two are hardly typical Summer scenes, although this picture and the final one are definitely meant to represent some transition to Autumn (as you’ll see again in a couple of posts’ time). This picture is a relatively simple scene, with a flock of little brown, black and white wading birds, called turnstones, foraging through some brown seaweeds, or wracks (knotted or egg wrack, bladder wrack and saw wrack). In the background, another flock of turnstones is flying away, looking like mini-oystercatchers. Some common mussels (sometimes called blue mussels) are visible under the wracks.

The turnstone (Arenaria interpres) is a common bird on British shores in Winter, as well as a passage migrant recorded in Spring and Autumn. As my old "AA Book of Birds" says of this species: “The greatest numbers gather on rocky and stony beaches, where the seaweed covers a rich supply of food.” The name “turnstone” comes from their habit of flipping over stones, sticks, shells and seaweed to uncover their prey of sandhoppers (the little jumping shrimps you commonly see when you move seaweed or driftwood on the tideline), little shellfish, insects, young fish and carrion, and they have also been recorded as eating bird’s eggs. They can turn over stones nearly equal in weight to their own body. The foremost individual in the picture is still in summer plumage, while the others have clearly moulted to reveal their more drab winter colours. In summer, nearly all the turnstones that have over-wintered in Britain return north to the Arctic to breed, so these birds in the picture are either on passage or have arrived here to over-winter.

My usual source of trend information of birds for this blog, the British Trust for Ornithology, unfortunately doesn’t have an entry for this species. But my bird book, “The Birds of the Western Palearctic” reports that the British wintering population is a minimum estimated 44,500 birds. It also suggests that there is no real idea of the total European population as many birds inhabit remote unsurveyed rocky shores of Iceland, Ireland and Norway. Since no sources that I regularly access for this series of posts provides any indication of a decline, I thought I’d be unable to comment on the status of the turnstone. At the last minute, however, coming unbidden through the postal system, like the US 7th Cavalry coming over the hill in the nick of time (but without the unfortunate anti-Native American connotations of that historical analogy, obviously!), a report arrived – the 2010 State of the UK’s Birds report. Produced by a long list of conservation agencies and bodies (including the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds and the British Trust for Ornithology), this indicates that between 1981 and 2007, the turnstone overwintering population in the UK has increased by some 17%, although in the last ten years there has been a 6% decline.

I’m not going to say much about any of the brown wracks or the common mussels – they are all very common species, likely all still to be doing very well, thank you very much, and all deserve more attention than I can give them here. If you want to look for yourself, I recommend once again that you look at the MARLIN website (Marine Life Information), where you can find information on the distribution and biology of these species.

Saturday, 30 October 2010

Friday, 29 October 2010

Big Wedge - prophetic or what?

Those old hippies, they know a thing or two...

Having just renewed my acquaintance with Fish's first solo album, "Vigil in a wilderness of mirrors" (updating my collection from a vinyl copy to CD and making it more convenient to listen to), I'd forgotten how powerful it was. I remember worrying in my relatively youthful fandom about whether this first solo effort would match up musically to what he had been doing previously in Marillion. I needn't have worried. It is a tour de force as far as first solo albums go - from the off, full of powerful and driving, or heartfelt and tender compositions. I think the song below was Fish's most successful solo single so far and, for me, one of the best on the album (and afforded us a chance to see him on Top of The Pops, if I recall correctly?). In light of the global credit crunch and the "living high on the hog", fairyland-of-credit lifestyles that people have been encouraged to lead and that contributed to that financial collapse (which may yet see me out of a job!), this song does indeed look highly prophetic and still sounds as cutting and incisive as it did at first hearing. I realise this is the second blog post in a row about Fish but it WAS a great show last Friday and I'm still a bit buzzing from it, so bear with me. Nature blog normality will be resumed shortly! For now though, enjoy the music!

Wednesday, 27 October 2010

Gone Fishin' ... (for marzipan)

So there I was, setting out to write a gig review and it's gone down a slightly odd path, as you'll see. On Friday last week, I was privileged to be able to see Fish, one of my oldest (as in longest-running, rather than in the geriatric sense) musical heroes playing to his home audience in Haddington, East Lothian.  I've posted before about my youthful fandom for Marillion, and my enjoyment  (modest understatement) of their music in their early days. Marillion's "Factor X" for me in those days was their frontman(mountain) Fish, Derek William Dick, all 10 foot tall of him (a bit like Mel Gibson's portrayal of William Wallace in the film "Braveheart" - "blowing fireballs and lightning from his ..." - media coverage of Fish's height has extended to the somewhat hyperbolic at times).

To my teenage progressive rock school friends and I, Fish was something of a rock legend - local (a Lothian boy from up the road in Dalkeith), even more deeply uncool than us (he wore kaftans, ferchrissakes!), and he played with this new band that everyone else thought was completely uncool (although surely the Tolkien reference in Marillion should have been worth a bit of street cred for teenage self-discovery - imagine if they emerged now, post Peter Jackson's Lord of The Rings!), playing prog rock music that we, the true cognoscenti, recognised for its instrumental virtuosity, its clever lyrics with their knowing puns, multiple entendres, strong personal, social and environmental messages and propensity to last more than four minutes per track.

At the time, for a generation of young prog rock fans who'd missed out on first-hand live experiences of Peter Gabriel's Genesis, the pre-nutjob ("The Wall") era Pink Floyd, and the classic Yes line-ups of the early and mid-1970s, Marillion were our new hope for complicated prog rock music, great live performances and high quality non-mainstream rock. And Fish, all 12 feet of him, was right up there, front of stage, all enigmatic , greasepaint-mask glowers, theatrical performance and exuberant exhorations to sing along ("You take the High road..."). We even had our own gig culture. Jethro Tull fans may have been given a big balloon to bat about the hall, but we threw buns to Marillion on stage (shouting: "Geezabun! As in "how does an elephant ask for a bun?" No, I don't really know how or why it started but I think it started at Edinburgh Marillion gigs, although I'm happy to be contradicted by evidence). We didn't know why we did it but it was our silliness and we loved it. Not sure if the enjoyment lasted as long for the band though!

Anyway, eventually, as music industry history and media coverage has recorded, Fish left Marillion and went "solo in the game" and has for some 20 years, ploughed his own furrow with a merry band of great musicians, turning out a series of great albums, as well as successful forays into acting, as an award-winning rock DJ on Planet Rock and, if you believe the Scottish Sun, a recent reinvention as an Action Man (welcome to my world, Big Man!)... allegedly giving up on women into the bargain ("I get my thrills from keeping fit now - I've had it with women" - Fish, there's something gone wrong here - I spent my young life keeping fit BECAUSE I couldn't find a woman!). Anyway, it was good to see him looking so fit and well last week!

So, after buying his first three solo albums and loving them, I kind of lost touch with what he was doing for a few years, but picked up again on his solo career a couple of years ago, when the epic 13th Star was released (Thanks for the heads-up at the time Pete M!). I was excited to discover recently that he was embarking on an acoustic tour, with just the three F's - Fish, Frank Usher, long-term guitar collaborator and Foss Patterson, long-term keyboard chum. I was even more excited to find that Haddington in East Lothian, Fish's base these days, was on the tour itinerary. I last saw Fish playing live, donkey's (15? 20?) years ago (what have I been doing?), with his full band (including Frank Usher and Robin Boult on guitars) in the Corn Exchange in Haddington. Last week, he was playing along the road in St Mary's Church, the largest church in East Lothian, even bigger than St Giles Cathedral in Edinburgh. Two gigs, Friday and Saturday nights, with the word on his Facebook site for fans being that both shows would be filmed and recorded for subsequent release, and that the production god Calum Malcolm (who produced Scotland's other finest atmospheric big space music guys, The Blue Nile) is lined up to weave his magic on the recordings - fantastic!

I could only make the Friday night and, even with a side visit to see my folks who live only a few miles away, I still managed to be in the first few to arrive before the show (just like the old days - we had so much spare time as teenage rock fans that Pete, Simon and I used to arrive at gigs HOURS before the show and just hang around - it worked out occasionally, we met Rory Gallagher once, which was great).  I was beaten to the venue by four great Dutch folk and their German pal. Their presence confirmed what I've long suspected. The Dutch are (maybe) crazy. They came over for the long weekend FROM HOLLAND, just to see two Fish gigs in East Lothian. Crazy, but lovely and knowledgeable and absolutely devoted to Fish's solo music and his earlier Marillion material. You have to love proper fans, don't you?! Well done guys, I hope you had a grand weekend! Anyway, we were all there early enough to secure front row seats - brilliant! It was a very simple stage, pared down lighting rig and sound system, single chair for Frank and a Roland piano with stool for Foss (along with 15 foot high mike stand for the Big F). The backdrop of the church was, by contrast, quite magnificent, with high vaulted ceilings, tall stained glass arched windows and LOTS of wood and stone:

St Mary's Church, Haddington - Fishbowl for the evening!

I don't think the Friday gig was sold out and despite the size of the space above our heads (see above!), it felt quite intimate, perhaps on account of it actually being quite a narrow space (although long!). Fish opened the show with an unaccompanied version of Chocolate Frogs ("for a heid full of chocolate frogs what can you give to me?"). Now, I can't and won't give a track-by-track listing of the whole show - look elsewhere for that - I tend to live and enjoy live gigs in the moment and quite often can't remember afterwards exactly what I've heard song by song. In fact, I never intended to do so anyway, as the tour continues and I don't see why I should spoil all the surprises for folk still to see the show. But - impressions of the gig - Fish was clearly delighted to be back live in front of a home crowd and revelling in the special stripped-down approach. Some of the material, the other two F's were clearly happy with but Fish joked about some of the older material and how nervous it made them... Indeed, some of the tracks were so old that it is clear that Channel 4's Time Team must have been drafted in to help recover them.  I assume this to be the case as there were so many bald heads and big beards in the crowd that it was clearly a Time Team night-out! Anyway, it won't spoil the tour too much to share a site-specific gag from Fish - he was actually married in this church in the late 1980's and recounted standing at the front with his two Best Men, a few feet from where he was performing, waiting for his German bride to arrive, slightly worse for wear from brandy in the hip flask, terrified by the thought of all the marzipan from all the weddings that had taken place in the church, imagining that it would fill the whole church. More on marzipan later...

Another poor picture from me but I love the effect - my phone camera couldn't cope with the bright stage lights reflecting off light coloured clothing and skin and it makes the three F's shine like inverse silhouettes - weird but really rather nice!
So, there were old Marillion tracks (as Fish mentioned them on his Facebook page, I'm not giving spoilers by saying that they played "Jigsaw" and "Punch and Judy" - fantastic versions) and a catalogue of solo career tracks, right up to date with stuff from 13th Star. Fish, as ever, wore his heart a-sleeve, 'fessing up to having been given the curse of being rubbish at relationships, balanced Yin for Yang, by the gift of being able to write about them. He also is still clearly interested in the story and fate of young working class Scottish lads who end up in the British Army, sent off to hellhole conflicts around the world and then just dumped back here to pick up the pieces afterwards - and there are numbers in this set that reflect that concern. I still like his open, confessional style on stage, and that, with his taking a seat down at our level on the front of the stage (because he was knackered and the other two had seats) created a great intimate feel for the audience, certainly those at the front:

Sorry abut the poor quality pic - my phone camera isn't the best!
Fish, Professor of Angst-Filled Bravado at the University of The Broken Heart takes a seat and has a chat!
So, I only want to report a couple more song-related things from the gig. At the Friday gig, we were treated to an extra song - at one point, Frank played the first few chords of Incommunicado, then stopped, and Fish asked him if he wanted to play it, as they had the time. Frank muttered no, let's do it tomorrow night. But that was no use to me - I wasn't going to be there, so I shouted "Do it now!" and they did! And it was yet another example of a song that shouldn't work without a rythmn section, but working so well as a stripped-down acoustic version. These three guys looked to be having so much fun on stage, even with the edgy worries about nailing some of the older numbers correctly, and a bit of good-natured ribbing about hardly-noticed wee errors in those! And on the subject of older numbers ... they played IT - yes, the one Fish never does live and that people always shout for at gigs! Well, Frank started playing the intro to "Grendel" (Marillion's much beloved (by the fans) 20-minute take on the Beowulf story but from the monster's perspective), following the inevitable shouts from the crowd. Fish said, "Do you want to do it?" and Frank was off, into the guitar intro, with Fish on the first verse and they continued, oh, for a whole minute. I called it the "One-Minute Version" but we could call it the 5% version too! A perhaps never-to-be repeated live experience? It only means something to fans... and you had to be there, but still...

And to recount the sum total of Fish's swearing for the night - it was ... none - he was a good boy and didn't swear (at all!) in church! And so, on the subject of marzipan...

Fish recalled, during Friday night's gig, his wedding day thought that all the marzipan from all the weddings that had taken place in the church might fill the whole church. I thought that deserved more attention so... I've done some calculations. Stick with me ("Listen to me. Just hear me out. If I could have your attention?"). We need to know: volume of marzipan per wedding cake and hence per wedding; number of weddings per year; how long weddings have been held (i.e. number of years = age of church), and the volume of the church.  I've had to make some assumptions... I assumed that marzipan is sold in packs that are 15x10x10 cm (0.15x0.10x0.10 metres) in size, and that 10 packs are used for the average wedding cake. That means that the volume of marzipan per wedding cake and hence per wedding is 10x(0.15x0.10x0.10) = 0.015 cubic metres of marzipan per wedding.  I've assumed that there are 400 weddings a year, which seems high but is only 8 per week in East Lothian's biggest church. Here's the fun bit - Google Brothers Inc. reveals that construction of St Mary's Church began in 1380 so, assuming people started being wed there from that date (in anticipation that it would be finished one day in the future, as indeed it was), that means there have been weddings for 630 years!

So, we have a total volume of marzipan over the lifetime of the church, equal to:

Volume of Marzipan per wedding x Number of Weddings per year x Number of years =

(0.015x400x630) or a total volume of 2835 cubic metres of marzipan.  So, to see if that would fill the church (it does sound like a lot of marzipan, doesn't it?), we need to know the volume of the church. Where to find that? Luckily, being a popular tourist location, there is lots of information on the church to be found at the excellent Google Brothers Inc (other infromation providers are available). The church is 63 metres long and 35 metres wide, but alas, no information is provided on the height (volume of the church, being roughly right-angled at the corners - it is 630 years old after all - is length x width x height). But I was there on Friday, and I would estimate that the average height might be 8 metres. the total volume would therefore be 63 x 35 x 8 = 17640 cubic metres.

Oh... but that's a lot more than the estimated volume of marzipan. In fact, we can calculate the depth of marzipan by dividing the volume of marzipan by the floor area of the church (because depth = (volume/(length x width)). So, that would be 2835/(63 x 35) = almost 1.29 metres. So, a paltry depth of marzipan that would barely reach Fish's waist (he is quite tall).  What a shame! But ... wait one minute - all may not be lost!

When did you ever go to a wedding and see the marzipan in blocks. At the wedding, it is ALWAYS already on the cake! So, I think we can have another go at this, assuming that all wedding cakes have three tiers (they do, don't they?). I reckon the following dimensions are more than reasonable for the three tiers of wedding cakes: upper - 20x20x10 cm; middle - 30x30x20 cm; lower - 40x40x30 cm. Yes, that would be a great wedding cake. Now, instead of the volume of marzipan (we can still assume 10 packs are used,  but it doesn't matter now), we have a volume of (0.2x0.2x0.2)+(0.3x0.3x0.2)+(0.4x0.4x0.3) = 0.07 cubic metres. The wedding cakes are effectively marzipan boxes filled with cake and we need to know the total volume of marzipan boxes. That means our new calculation would be:

Volume of Marzipanned cake per wedding x Number of Weddings per year x Number of years = (0.07x400x630) = 17640 cubic metres which is equal to the volume of the church - fantastic! So, Fish, the church would be marzipan filled SO LONG AS IT WAS ON THE WEDDING CAKES (and assuming my very reasonable assumptions are correct...)

Interestingly (if you are a bit sad), this figure was calculated to 2010 so, when Fish was standing at the altar in the late 1980's awaiting his bride, there was in fact a small gap somewhere at the top of the metaphorical marzipan-filled church awaiting the next 20 years (approximately) worth of marzipanned cakes.

PS If you thought that a headful of chocolate frogs was bad (see above), I found this while looking into marzipan: marzipan frogs. Help!