Gone Fishing?

One of the most interesting things about last week was a trip to Kingston upon Hull. Jokes aside, I never thought I would say that but the reality is most British towns and cities of a reasonable size have something to recommend them and Hull is no different. However, what I thought I would be most interested in – Hull as the birthplace of William Wilberforce – turned out to be less fascinating than something else that I was exposed to that I knew nothing about.
Don’t get me wrong – Wilberforce is a ‘hero’ of mine and there was some satisfaction in the pilgrimage but I already felt I knew a lot about the story around abolition from William Hague’s excellent biography (well worth a read) and I did not really learn anything new. Around the back of the house he grew up in however, is moored the ‘Arctic Corsair’, a 1960s North Sea trawler. There are free tours of the ship and this was the biggest eye opener for me; what it was like to be a trawler fisherman. As I stuffed myself with cod and chips at Seahouses on my holidays year after year in the late seventies I do not think I gave one thought to the men out catching the things, for weeks on end and in all weathers. I certainly did not consider that they would have been almost constantly soaked to the skin, as the nets would always be put down on the side that had the worse swell, to facilitate them going out from the boat rather than being swept back under the boat and potentially wrapping itself disastrously around the propeller. The gentleman who took us around the boat was almost gleeful in the description of how hard it could be; he was a retired Merchant Navy man who had desperately wanted to be on the trawlers as a kid – like all the men in his family – but had found his father obstinate in preventing this, hence the change to commercial sailing. But this was not before being sneaked aboard a trawler for a tour of duty at the (illegal) age of twelve; maybe his father thought it would have put him off. It didn’t.
It made me think about why a young lad would want to go into such a tough and dangerous profession, especially after seeing a bit of what it actually was like. Maybe it was not being forced to wash for several weeks, as there was little point of doing that when your time was spent working in the spray and the combination of fish slime and guts or sleeping, apart from the short breaks to eat. Apparently most men would have three sets of clothing that they would rotate, wearing one set while the other two dried. The ‘Corsair’ has a rather spacious bathroom with showers at the stern – this was only used when they finally returned to port at the end of the trip, for the crew to make themselves more presentable. It was a hard job, but also in some ways simple, and that might also had to appeal. It could even be profitable in a part of the country where physical work – such as an agricultural labourer – was poorly paid. If a crew could get a good catch of cod, ‘dux’ (i.e. haddock) and the Holy Grail that was the odd halibut in the (massive) hold, and be lucky enough to get market on a day when there was not a glut, then they could make a significant amount of money. Of course the opposite applied. A lot depended on luck and the skill and tenacity of the skipper, who, while comfortable on the bridge in the warmth had the most to gain and to lose from a trip, as he had worked his way up from the bottom to get to that position, but only a successful skipper would keep getting the gig from the shipping company. Our guide gleefully told us about one skipper, who went by the nickname of ‘Killer’ which tells you all you need to know. He was notorious for working his crews to breaking point and taking risks in pursuit of the best catch. Working in a comfortable ‘people caring’ corporate environment as I do that seems shocking to me. But as was pointed out, ‘Killer’ never had a problem finding a crew to man a boat on which he was skipper – he got results and all the crew profited as a result. In fact, it is really not hard for me to imagine a bunch of exhausted trawler men raising a glass to their skipper in one of the many old pubs of Old town Hull, at the same time as they called him some very nasty names indeed.

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Slow to love the birds

When I was a child, I never really got into bird watching. I’m a huge fan of the natural world (as any poor person who has come across my ramblings will probably guess) but while I could understand other people’s fascination for birds, I never really developed it in the same way. I suspect partly it was because the birds I grew up with suited rather too well the place I grew up in – perfectly fine, but nothing, well, that appeared that special.

Before you shoot me down in a fit of ‘what do you want… a bunch of Sea Eagles and an American Blue throat?’ let me say in my defence that I have since revised my view. The robins that accompany my desperate battle against the ground elder in our garden almost make the effort worth it. The sparrows that bicker outside my window are a welcome distraction sometimes from the most tedious phone conference. And nothing says summer to me than lounging back in the garden in the fading light listening to the blackbirds declaring their territory with a wonderful mixture of beautiful music and promised brutality.

But when I was a child it seemed like the same old birds, year in year out, diligently fed by my mother (who used to stress when we were away that the poor things would starve) and that was a lot less exciting that the evocative ruined castles and abbeys or the diverse North East rock pools that were some of my happiest memories (connected as they were with frequent holidays on the magnificent North East coast).

But I think it would have been a bit different if I had lived on the coast, or within walking distance of a decent reserve or WWT centre. We are on holiday in the Yorkshire Wolds (no, I did not know that there was such a place, but it is rather lovely – just North of the Wash, stretching up to Bridlington/Filey – and after a recent feature on Springwatch we wanted to visit the RSPB reserve at Bempton Cliffs. It is really easy to get to and is one of the few mainland places you can get close to breeding seabirds. And even in April, without the excitement of eggs or chicks, there is plenty to see – especially the gannets. They are wonderful birds – huge, impossible to mistake for anything else, pale blue eyes and with a range of fascinating behaviour that with the most basic of binoculars you can just spend hours watching them. If you get bored, there are plenty of other things to see – this area of the English coastline also has large populations of Kittiwakes, small delicate gulls that looks so sweet but have the noisiest calls (hence the name) and can be the most viscous battlers –we spent ten minutes watching two birds locked in combat beak to beak, and they only stopped when it looked like a mutual drowning in a rock pool was likely. We were also amused that immediately afterwards, the two exhausted combatants immediately seemed to be on the receiving end of amorous attractions of the girls, so clearly they were impressed by this feathered fight club.

I think if I had access to this kind of drama – or was able to recognise the drama acted out by the so apparently ‘ordinary’ birds in my garden at home – then maybe I would have been more of a passionate bird watcher. But to be honest, we are so lucky to be surrounded by such an exciting collection of birds without really trying other than just keeping your eyes open. I defy anyone not to smile at a pair of goldfinches on a feeder, or a gaggle of long tailed tits – one of our all-time favourite birds, tiny chattering pink lollipops of birds – if you see them.

And sometimes you just have to be lucky. Tonight, as we drive back from Flamborough Head, a barn owl flew over the bonnet of the car and kept pace with us for a few wonderful moments, giving us probably the closest encounter we will ever have with a wild individual – truly one of our greatest birds and a completely ‘never forget this’ moment.

Who knows what you will see today.

When you start talking about something and then you end up… Somewhere else.

The Lovely wife is a great fan of gardens. Our putative dream home would have several. Well several parts, anyway, as we both like the idea of garden ‘rooms’ – so she can have her kitchen garden, I’ll have my Japanese garden (with as much borrowed scenery as I can muster) and orchard with attendant windfall eating pig Bacon – or Ham. Well, let’s be clear what the ultimate destiny will be. Actually, I am a huge fan of pigs and while you might think it is cruel that they do not get to live a long life, it is worth noting that the pigs we normally have for our full English breakfasts simply cannot. I have recently started helping out at our local RSPCA centre, specially helping with the miscellaneous animals department (i.e. anything that is not a cat, dog or a horse, the former two as frankly I’m indifferent and too likely to get attached respectively and the latter because you need qualifications that I don’t have). Miscellaneous mostly means rabbits, chickens and rodents (I have only recently as a result come across the joys of the Degu, although we do not have anywhere to put the cage that was big enough to keep them happy). Also they have a pig, half a tonne of porker who is living the remainder of his short life out without the threat of being sausages, but I cannot say it is much of a life. I say this considering he can hardly move and is in more or less constant care from the vet.

The problem is simple – he was bread to be pork, and over the years we have through breeding genetically modified his variety to basically grow as fast as it can and produce the best quality pork; and if you concentrate on one aspect you are going to have to give up others, and that includes longevity. A boar in the wild needs to be strong enough to live for several seasons to give it a chance to create progeny, while your standard farm pig does not… Considering a lot of pigs are artificially inseminated anyway the poor old man is largely a production factory for you know what. So our poor old pig, although only a relatively young animal in terms of years is well past the time he would have expected to survive and like a lot of pedigree animals is now suffering from a range of ailments that his wild ancestors would not see for several more years.

Is he in a lot of pain? Well, he sleeps all day and gets the best of care, but it did remind me that for domesticated animals at least what matters maybe their welfare through the time they are alive rather than human based concepts of lifespan. I like to know, where possible, the conditions in which the animals that form part of diet are kept and the good news is that this is easier and easier to do these days. The other thing I like about this is that the reason it is easier is due in part to one of the strongest things in business; consumer pressure. If enough people consistently push for something, then businesses will eventually deliver it. This is especially true in businesses that require loyalty to their products to survive, whether that is newspapers, food or shampoos. If you stop buying their product companies will go out of business, eventually. So I strongly encourage anyone dissatisfied with a product – especially one they liked or want like – to (and I know it is a horrible word) complain. If enough people complain, it will change. If not, the assumption is everything is fine. It might not work with governments or institutions, but it does often work with business.

Weirdly, when I started writing this I was intending to talk about robins and our relationship with wildlife via our lifestyles and gardens, which has given me almost as many reasons to smile this weekend as Big Hero 6. Instead, animal welfare and the importance of consumer pressure seem to have come out, so in the interests of the stream of my consciousness, I’ll stop there and scribble about my love of what goes on in our (currently) normal sized garden next week.

And yes, the title is the last thing I try to come up with…

It’s not going to end well

Easter may be a time for hope for some, but not all of my neighbours are going to have a happy time this spring, I fear.

What is very apparent at the moment is the nest building of various birds around our garden in preparation for this year’s breeding attempt. The coots in the park have pretty much finished their rather impressive creations – superstructures of twigs resting on the bottom of the lake and decorated above the water’s surface with what passes presumably for each coot’s own personal idea of interior design, ranging from the ‘natural’ collection of various leaves to the seventies inspired crisp packet and discarded chocolate wrapper Avant Guarde look. The grey herons are sitting now, looking on with some irritation at the group of Little Egrets that have moved into their previously single heron species neighbourhood.

In our garden, it is looking increasingly as if the local mob of sparrows may be considering a nest in the midst of the raging Krinoid that is our jasmine, but the most obvious nesters locally are the magpies.

Now I have to confess I am a fan of all the crow family. We are very lucky to have the occasional jay pop in (surely one of the UK’s most beautiful birds) but normally Corvid presence is limited to either the pair of magpies or my one time nemesis the local carrion crow (and his paramour). I say nemesis; like Holmes and Moriarty, I have a grudging respect for my enemy, despite my efforts to thwart his evil schemes. This is the bird that for a period of weeks caused havoc on the bird feeder because he had learned to unhook the feeders from the pole; once on the ground, he could plunder their contents. He saw through a number of attempted fixes until finally I defeated him with some plastic garden ties. But I do think he is a marvellous bird, a huge brute in a riot of glossy black and darkest blue.

I also am fond of the magpies, who again, are worth a second look to see how gorgeous their plumage is in the breeding season. The local pair has been hard at work building a nest in a nearby evergreen. It has taken them a few weeks; sadly it will be to no avail.

The other day, it was obvious that the crows had rumbled the magpie’s nest location. There was no deception on the part of the crows. They just sat there, watching the increasingly panicked magpies with that unconcerned look of the villain that says ‘nothing you can do, Mr Magpie, is going to stop us now’ (evil cackle). The magpies have tried to drive them off, but they are less than half the size of the crow, and that beak of the larger bird is more than capable of dealing a death blow in an instant to the magpie so they are not really making much progress.

The upshot of this is the magpies will fail to breed this year. They will go through with the egg-laying most likely, but the crows will remember – because they have excellent memories for this sort of thing – and will come back and take either the eggs or the chicks, and there is nothing the magpies can do to stop them. It is quite sad in a way; but the crows have chicks to feed as well, and from our point of view we need both these birds to help clear up all the rubbish we leave around where we live.

The good news for the magpies is that they can live up to for several years (the oldest recorded was 21), so they will have a chance to breed next year – maybe even try again late in the season.

The bad news is that crows have an even longer lifespan and (voice drops to sinister East End whisper) ‘we knows where you live…’