DAMSELS-2_9816This time of year is perfect for seeing dragons (it’s National Dragonfly Week)… but don’t forget the damsels. In July they’re looking for love but their dating techniques are a bit ‘old school’…even for my tastes.

They may look dainty, flitting around pond margins. But watch more closely and it looks more like mass domestic abuse is happening on a sunny day in high summer.

The males will bash into happy couples mid flight, beating the rival males up, to get to a mate, pulling or biting to split pairs up. Others pounce on unsuspecting damsels sunning themselves on marginal grasses. They’ll even rape them as they lay their eggs, such are the lusts of the guys.

The females dart around to try to avoid becoming sport between two males, they can be half drowned by forceful males determined to mate. So they fight back, sometimes killing their attackers, even eating them, so a male had better be sure she’s in the mood. The thrill of the chase means that the strongest males get the girls. But to be sure they live to tell the tale, they ‘grab’ a girl (big fat gypsy style). They’ll hold her by the throat with special spiky plates on their tail, while they mate. The pair stay stuck together in tandem for a while and can often be seen flying across ponds still joined together. The male wants to hold onto her long enough to get the eggs he’s fertilised laid before an usurper turns up.

Dragonfly-like insects have been around for millions of years, they’re dinosaurs in our midst, so it must work for them. And after a brutal courtship, when they finally get it together, they form a heart shape. Who said romance is dead?

National Dragonfly Week June 11th-19th | british-dragonflies.org.uk

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meat-free-salad2sI admit, I just couldn’t be a vegetarian, at least not for long. One sniff of bacon and I’d feel I was missing out. But a colleague told me about Meat Free Mondays – sounds do-able.

It seems that the latest evidence is that eating less meat is not just good for us but good for the planet too. I’m not about to ditch the fillet steaks just yet, but I’ve decided to try Meat Free Mondays and because it’s easier to stick to, hopefully it will be a long term plan. But if you can only cope with one veggie day a year – today’s National Meat Free Day.

Eating less red and processed meat can:
help you lose weight. Plant based diets tend to be less energy dense and can make you feel fuller.
lower your cholesterol. Meat and dairy make up nearly half our weekly saturated fat intake.
reduce your risk of getting bowel cancer.

Less meat, more forest.
The thing that swung it for me was that our hunger for cheap meat is the main cause of rainforest destruction.
I’ve seen first hand the destruction caused by a mono-culture of palm and sugar in the Dominican Republic and was horrified, but whilst palm oil accounts for 26 million acres of forest destruction, 136 million acres are lost to make way for cattle.

  • 1-2 acres of rain forest are cleared every day to make way for animal agriculture.
  • 91% of the Amazon Rainforest destruction is down to beef farming.
  • 20% of the Amazon Rainforest has gone in the last 40 years.
  • Forest clearance is the No.1 cause of species extinction, often before they’re discovered.
  • 18% of the world’s greenhouse gases are caused by livestock – more than by cars.
  • Over 90% of Madagascar’s original forests have been felled due to slash and burn clearance for grazing.
  • Costa Rica has lost almost all of its forest in the last 20 years to ranching.

Forests play a vital role in cleaning our air and stabalising our climate. They store huge amounts of carbon that would otherwise contribute to climate change. Our forests are being burnt off the map by slash and burn clearance. Unfortunately without the trees to secure the ground, all too often the soil erodes and quickly turns into a lifeless desert.

And most of us are eating meat twice a day without even thinking about it. But we can make a difference – simply by eating less meat and eating more plants.

But meat is tasty…
Ok, I’m only resisting for one day of the week. But I’m going to make an effort to be more aware of what I’m buying. Source sustainable fish (avoiding John West’s tuna), shop with the local butcher and buy organic when I can (I don’t like the idea of all the antibiotics). And I’m going to try to jazz up simple food. I’m starting my week with a quinoa, edamame bean, carrot, beetroot and feta salad with some wild garlic pesto pasta (easy recipe here), followed up with a grapefruit, orange and pomegranate fruit cocktail.

meat-free-desert

 

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me-hawthorn-7We’ve been teased with glimpses of Summer and the suncream has been out for the first time. But then last week saw a return of the cold weather and bucket-loads of rain. It was wet pretty much every day here in the Midlands and coats went back on, reminding me of the proverb:

“Ne’er cast a clout till May be out“

Simply put it means don’t cast off your winter clothes until May is out.

What’s not clear is whether this means until the month of May is over, or until the Maytree is in bloom, it’s tricky to know because it’s a saying that can be traced back to the fifteenth century. The Maytree or Hawthorn blossoms were given the common name ‘May’ due to them opening in late April and early in the month of May, making them a central to many MayDay celebrations in the past. The time the Hawthorn comes into leaf and flower has been used to track the seasons for decades and the blossom would’ve been an important sign to farm workers that the growing season was starting in times when few people had clocks or calendars. It’s out in full now, so hopefully it’s a sign things are warming up.

A longer version of the saying appeared as a poem in an 1855 Whitby Gazette:

The wind at North and East
Was never good for man nor beast.
So never think to cast a clout
Until the month of May be out.

I think the original proverb probably meant the month of May rather than the plant, as it’s not uncommon to get a spell of cold weather now. I got thoroughly soaked in the Peak District at the weekend, so I’m hanging onto my coat for a bit.

Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?
Thou art more lovely and more temperate:
Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May,
And summer’s lease hath all too short a date.

Shakespeare’s Sonnet 18

may-blossom2
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hare1_MG_3139Last weekend I spent a day lying in a field, deep in the heart of Norfolk, waiting for a brown hare.

Hares are notoriously hard to sneak up on, they’re really skittish and have huge ears to magnify the slightest sound, giving them time to make a 35mph get away. Any movement and they’ll shoot off into cover before you’ve opened your camera bag. With such a tricky subject I was glad to be joining wildlife photographer and hare specialist, Simon Litten. His day-long workshop gave me some insight into fieldcraft and into the hares and their habits, as well as taking me to a ‘guaranteed hare hotspot’.

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Anyone that knows me will know that I’m not a morning person but somehow I made the 5.30am start. The weather was forecast hot and sunny so it seemed strange putting on a hat, gloves and coat but the first few hours were spent lying on our bellies on the ground, in the open with just a scrim net draped over our cameras to break up our silhouettes, hands and faces had to be covered as much as possible. After what seemed like ages the sun came up and a single hare came onto the path a distance away. He had a wash and I grabbed these two quick shots before the sound of my shutter sent him running for the orchard. He was almost out of my 100-400 lens’ reach (a 500 lens would be best and a full frame camera body with silent mode switched on).

rb-hares-1Simon explained that the hares stick to favoured ‘runs’ so these are a good place to wait. They’re intelligent animals though – if they see something new they’ll give it a wide berth. We moved to the shade of a hedge, facing a run to wait for another few hours. The wind was blowing into our faces which carried our scent behind us. It was a usual spot for Simon, chosen to take advantage of the fact that a hare’s eyesight straight ahead isn’t great (their eyes are on the sides of their head and we were sitting in the shadows). Even so, frustratingly we saw hares but they seemed to ‘just know’ and hop off into the growing wheat.

hare4_MG_3153A bad hare day

The weather was amazing, I’m not sure I’d have had the patience on a rainy day but the heat was a bad omen for hare action. When it’s hot they lie-low in their scrapes or ‘forms’ (hares live separately above ground and don’t have burrows like rabbits). Also they rest-up in the daytime, being most active at night, dawn and dusk (at the start of the breeding frenzy they’re around in the daytime more). By now the females should already have young leverets, which they carry from the form and feed elsewhere to stop foxes getting the scent of milk – all of which means they’re being extra cautious.

“The March Hare will be much the most interesting, and perhaps as this is May it won’t be raving mad – at least not so mad as it was in March.”

Alice – Alice’s adventures in Wonderland

The expression ‘mad as a March hare’ comes from the crazy chasing, leaping and boxing witnessed early in the season as the female gives her suitors the run around, testing their fitness to mate which can lead to fights for female attention. (It’s often the females thumping the males away if they’re not ready.) They breed from Febuary-September and the females can conceive even when pregnant. This ability to breed so prolifically explains why they became fertility symbols in pre Christian times.

To me the males and females looked alike. Both have black tips to their ears and on top of their tails but Simon pointed out that the females had bigger bums (no comment). I think you need to be pretty familiar to tell – but I’m not splitting hares! And it’s not just the hares that are mad – I think trying to sit silently for hours sent me slightly daft too…

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