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Not the latest invader of our streams and rivers, but a badge of honour being promoted by the Wildlife Trust for Birmingham and the Black Country. They are asking people to check that their dishwashers, washing machines and sinks are properly connected to the sewers. If they are the Trust is inviting people to put the Yellow Fish logo on their drains to demonstrate this. The connections are important because if machines are wrongly connected the dirty water they discharge could be going straight into local watercourses. Most properties have both types of drains and there is evidence of many misconnections, either caused by the ignorance of do-it-yourself plumbers, or the negligence and incompetence of contractors.
This is a good time to address this issue. The wildlife of our stream, rivers and ponds is at its busiest. Frogs, toads and newts have returned to the water to spawn and young tadpoles are emerging to feed. Waterside birds, such as ducks, moorhens and kingfishers, are laying eggs and raising chicks, fish are spawning and dragonfly larvae are approaching the time of their emergence. The last thing all these creatures need is a dose of dirty water.
Another factor is the summer. Even though the drought has been averted problems always increase in the summer because lower levels and warmer water magnify the effects of pollution. This is because the ratio of polluted water to clean water is much higher - there is less dilution. Warmer weather and low oxygen levels, plus pollution, equals dirty smelly water in our nature reserves and open spaces making them much less amenable to people as well as to wildlife. In addition to the unpleasantness there may be risks to health as well.
The Trust campaign is based on its work with many schools in Birmingham and the Black Country. They have been checking the schools' plumbing. This has the added advantage that the children are being made aware of the problems so that hopefully they can avoid them when they become householders.
There is a website to help you to understand and address the problem. It is www.connectright.org.uk run by The Connect Right Campaign. The partners in this campaign include the water companies through Water UK, the Environment Agency, the Chartered Institute of Environmental Health and CIPHE (the professional body for plumbing and heating engineers).
The Environment Agency and local councils have the power to prosecute those responsible for pollution. No matter who did the work you may be responsible if your property is misconnected. How much better for you and for your local environment if you know everything is in order, and can proudly display a Yellow Fish.
Local entrepreneur Phil Innes is about to open Loki Wines in Great Western Arcade. Having set up Slosh Box, an online retailer, Phil has now decided to go for a more direct approach by setting up Birmingham's first specialist wine tasting venue.
Those words will be familiar to many of you from your childhood, heard in the distance as you disappeared for another afternoon of tree-climbing and den-building. Apparently today's youngsters are increasingly denied this simple pleasure by a risk-averse world which offers them much which is virtual, but little which is reality.
According to 'Natural Childhood', a recent National Trust Report, children are missing out on many benefits because they are not given the freedom to explore and experiment outdoors which previous generations enjoyed. Amongst the Report's findings are:
Fewer than ten per cent of kids play in wild places; down from 50 per cent a generation ago
The roaming radius for kids has declined by 90 per cent in one generation (thirty years)
Fewer than a quarter of children regularly use their local 'patch of nature', compared to over half of all adults when they were children.
One in three could not identify a magpie
Half could not tell the difference between a bee and a wasp
But nine out of 10 could recognise a Dalek.
This is despite the fact that many local woodlands, wetlands and open spaces are safer, more accessible and more welcoming than ever before. There are also more organised and supervised activities for children than there used to be, including holiday play schemes and forest school activities. Whilst these equip children to be safe in outdoor environments, they are different to two hours spent with friends exploring and investigating whatever comes to hand. Scratches and grazes are just as much badges of honour as a lollipop from the play leader.
So wary are we now of children being out unsupervised that the sight of a group of youngsters is likely to cause alarm: either for their safety or for fear of anti-social behaviour. Of course there are risks and of course not all children are well-behaved, but this has always been the case. Surely the overall benefits of giving more freedom to more children outweigh the disadvantages?
You might well not agree - that's fine, the National Trust wants to hear what people think. They are asking people to answer the following questions:
1. What do you think are the most important barriers to children spending more time outdoors?
2. What can individuals and families - including grandparents and godparents, as well as the parents themselves - do to help their children engage with nature?
3. How can community groups, local and national organisations support families in getting outdoors and closer to nature?
4. What policy changes are needed ensure that every child has the opportunity to develop a personal connection with the natural world?
Go to http://outdoornation.org.uk/ for more information and details about how to respond.
I'll paint you a word picture; it was the eve of the wife's 30th birthday. I was suffering the pre-giving of gifts nervousness. Had I got her good enough presents? Forget "good" even; had I got her enough presents full stop?
There was of course one aspect of the evening that I was in full control of. The wine choice. Knowing the I had a bottle of this safely stowed away in my wine cooler provided plenty of comfort.
They say that you learn something everyday. While this may be far from true for many people around the world, I can confidently say that for me, it really is true. Everyday I see something in Beijing that fascinates me. From a man cycling a rickshaw with a colossal mountain of plastic bottles on his back; or a lover's squabble on the subway that results in the boyfriend breaking into romantic song - an idea no doubt lifted out of a cheesy boy band music video. Most days I also pick up a new phrase or new word to expand on my growing Chinese mandarin vocabulary. What interests me most about China, however, is the profound difference in culture and way of thought. Chinese people my age often have radically contrasting feelings towards many things, most notably for me, is their priorities in life.
Today I read an article published by the Shanghai Metropolis Daily, which featured a list they called a "Hierarchy of Snobbery". The lists, which cover everything from taste in the opposite sex, to favoured brands, music, and movies, are, what the paper claims, reflect a person's intelligence, class, and even how "international" they are.
Here are a few of my favourites...
6. Sony Ericsson
11. shanzhai mobile phones.
(Original Chinese text) 手机：黑莓>苹果>小米>HTC>三星>索爱>诺基亚>摩托罗拉>联想>中兴>山寨机
1. British TV shows
2. American TV shows
3. Japanese TV shows
4. Korean TV shows
5. Taiwanese TV shows
6. Thai TV shows.
(Original Chinese text) 电视剧：英剧>美剧>日剧>韩剧>港剧>台剧>内地剧>泰剧
3. Left Bank
5. Typhoon Shelter (Tea House)
7. Nescafe Instant
(Original Chinese text) 咖啡：COSTA>星巴克>左岸>上岛>避风塘>麦当劳、肯德基>雀巢速溶
Most desirable Women:
1. Light-skinned, rich, slim, beautiful, and with big boobs
2. light-skinned, rich, slim, and beautiful
3. light-skinned, rich, and beautiful
4. light-skinned and rich
5. light-skinned and beautiful
(Original Chinese text) 女神：白富瘦美挺>白富瘦美>白富美>白富>白美
Second generation Chinese:
1. PLA second generation (children of People's Liberation Army officers)
2. Government official second generation
3. Rich second generation
4. Children of coal mine owners
5. poor second generation
6. children of farmers
(Original chinese text) 二代：军二代>官二代>富二代>煤二代>贫二代>农二代
During a recent visit to Lincolnshire I was pleased to see the local chaffinches seemed to be doing well. They were feeding in gardens and their characteristic song was ringing out from every hedgerow. (The song is a series of short notes ending in a twisty trill, often described as h-e-b-r-e-w-s-hebrews.) Their presence may seem unremarkable, but these birds, and their greenfinch cousins, have been suffering from a disease which has significantly reduced their numbers.
The disease, called trichomonosis is caused by a tiny internal parasite. It particularly affects the pigeon family and birds of prey that feed upon them. It damages the birds' throat and gullet, making it difficult to swallow food. According to the British Trust for Ornithology (BTO) the strain infecting finches appeared in Britain in 2005. In 2006 in the Midlands and West of England chaffinch breeding success declined by 20% and greenfinch breeding success by 35%. It is estimated that half a million greenfinches died. Since then the epicentre of the disease in this country has moved east.
To make things worse migrating birds carry the disease with them. Whilst everyone is familiar with migrating swallows, cuckoos and warblers, and often aware that many waders, geese and ducks are winter visitors, the migrations of small birds that also have resident populations are not so well known. In this case thousands of chaffinches move to Britain from Scandinavia, the Baltic countries and Denmark, whilst many greenfinches from the same area winter in the Low Countries. It is now feared that the disease, which has appeared in Germany, will become more widespread on the European mainland.
Various bird-watching and recording schemes have helped enormously in tracking and monitoring the spread and impacts of the disease. These include the BTO's Big Garden Birdwatch and Breeding Bird Survey. By coincidence, at the time of the outbreak the BTO had 750 volunteers investigating bird diseases under what they called the Garden Bird Health Initiative. The data that they collected were combined with reports from vets and more casual observations reported to the RSPB, before being passed on to research scientists. This enabled a better understanding of the outbreak to be developed and for sound advice and information to be given to help to mitigate its consequences.
One thing to learn from this is that things are not always as straightforward as they seem. People often say to me, for example, that they are not seeing small birds in their garden 'because there are too many magpies about'. Apart from the fact that 'too many' is a very vague term, largely unrecognised by nature, we would all do well to remember that populations of any animal or bird are subject to sometimes large fluctuations caused by a wide range of factors. These may act alone or, more usually, in concert with each other: simple cause and effect is rarely the answer.
If there's one thing that unites the Chinese nation, it's a love of food. Upon arrival in any city in China, the air is filled with an aroma of food and exotic scents. Rather than just refueling the body, mealtimes are regarded as the most important times of the day. All work stops for lunch and dinner times, and it is considered highly inappropriate to skip a meal due to work commitments. In China, no business deal is finalized nor relationship formed until you have sat down and shared a meal - more often than not, washed down with a few shots of Baijiu, a paraffin-like tasting strong Chinese liquor. Food is so important to the Chinese people, that conversations are initiated with a casual, "have you eaten?", rather than the western counterpart of "nice weather we're having" or "how's it going?"
With this in mind, it's unsurprising that among the rows and rows of restaurants, a number of entrepreneurs are keen to locate a niche market. Low and behold, the themed restaurant landed. Although the older generations of Chinese prefer to stick to traditional Chinese restaurants, teenagers and young adults, possibly in a bid to rebel from their disciplined school and work lives, are keen to try something new and unusual. So, as disturbed as I was to come across a restaurant that had a chosen the universally-acknowledged unappetizing theme of poo poo as its premise, I nevertheless found myself inside the restaurant, perched upon a toilet seat and browsing the poo-inspired menu.
With dishes such as a beef curry served in a tabletop commode, and mashed potato swirled into a turd-shape and served in a urinal, I had clearly entered some kind of doodoo dream-world. Even my drink came in a curly-poo cup...I was relieved to discover the content was orange juice. Chocolate milkshake may have been too much for my reserved English insides to handle. However, while the food looked very good, the concept of eating out of a commode left me feeling quite uneasy. Nevertheless, the House of Poo Poo restaurant was bustling with potty young Chinese diners enthusiastically licking the toilet bowl clean. However friendly the staff are and no matter how many cuddly poo toys decorate the walls, a walk on the stool-side of dining left me feeling like ****.
Last week, people across China enjoyed a three-day holiday to mark Qingming festival. But rather than enjoying a break somewhere nice, or putting their feet up in front of the TV, many Chinese people will have spent the holiday spending time with family or visiting cemeteries to pay respects to their ancestors.
Qingming Festival, which fell on April 4th this year, is also known as tomb sweeping day. It is a day set aside for Chinese people to remember family members who have passed away. Like most Asian countries, family plays a major role in the lives of the Chinese people. Therefore, it is considered essential that Chinese people of all ages make a special effort to honour the dead.
For those that have the opportunity to visit cemeteries on this day, the standard ritual is to burn incense and offer sacrifices to the dead. It has long been a tradition for families to burn fake money, which is peculiarly printed in the style of dollar bills. As the fire eats away at the money, it is believed that the 'money' is passed over to their family members on the 'other side'.
A Chinese friend of mine once told me that his grandmother, who had passed away a couple of years earlier, visited him in a dream. He noticed that her clothes were shabby and her hair unkempt. So, come Qingming festival, he made sure he bought plenty of paper money to burn for her. The next night he dreamt that she visited him once again; this time wearing her lovely new clothes. Rather than query the belief, with questions such as 'is currency necessary in heaven?' or 'where would one buy clothes in heaven?', I choose to respect the belief. The emphasis and consideration that Chinese people attach to the importance of family is admirable and something I consider to be severely lacking in British society today. However, I can't help but smile at how much emphasis cash has in Chinese society. If Qingming festival proves one thing, it's the belief that even in death, money and possessions are indispensable.
Since China's 'opening up' 34 years ago, the significance of money and status have become even more magnified. It is no longer simply a car, apartment, and job that prove your worth, it's also your partner, where you eat, and of course, your mobile phone, handbag, and a whole host of other materialistic paraphernalia. So it came as no surprise when I discovered that this year, it wasn't just paper money that Chinese families were buying as offerings for their ancestors, but also paper Apple iPads and iPhones.
At 80 US dollars per iPad, and iPhones for around 4 US dollars, these paper offerings do not up at a snip. In an attempt to drum up enthusiasm, sellers on popular Chinese shopping site, Taobao.com, offered discounts to bulk buyers. How many iPads does one's deceased relative require? For those really wanting to splash out and treat their deceased loved ones, then paper villas, cars and even houses are also available.
A majority of Chinese people that I spoke to about Qing Ming festival plans told me that they will not be bulk-buying paper iPads just yet. In recent years, as the Chinese people have become more aware of eco-living, people have been encouraged to commemorate relatives on QingMing festival by planting flowers and trees around gravesites. However, the traditional way of commemorating Qingming festival remains the most popular option.
Continuing the gardening theme from my last column I have come across an interesting project being run by Pond Conservation called 'The Big Pond Dip'.
For the past three years they have collected information about garden and school ponds - how big they are, how deep, and what sorts of plants they contain, and have linked this information to the ponds' inhabitants. The exercise continues this year. It will help to refine advice about how to build and maintain garden ponds for the maximum benefit of both wildlife and people. This is important because easily accessible fresh water is much rarer than it was even forty or fifty years ago.
Ponds are about the only wildlife-friendly garden feature consistently advocated by the decking-and-pot-plant instant garden brigade. As a result there must be thousands of garden ponds although most of them are small, no more than three or four square metres. Any pond is better than no pond, but there is much that can be done to improve their worth to birds, insects and amphibians. These in turn help you the gardener: birds and frogs are natural pest controllers, and what garden is not improved by having its own supply of brilliantly coloured dragonflies and damselflies?
The Big Pond Dip results, published by Pond Conservation, show that two thirds of ponds had breeding dragonflies and damselflies, and three quarters of them contained water snails, pond skaters and water beetles. Although nine out of ten ponds were visited by frogs, toads and newts, only six out of ten were used by them for breeding. This shows that they are fussier than many people think. Newts and toads are definitely more picky than frogs. Any old piece of water will not do, unless perhaps it is isolated from other, better, places. One very good finding is that half of the ponds involved were topped up with rainwater which is much to be preferred to tap water. (Having said this, there is probably a bias amongst the self-selecting respondents to the survey to manage their ponds in this way.)
The old conundrum about mixing fish and amphibians was not really solved. Frogs were found breeding more often in ponds with fish than without (although this could be that there are fewer ponds without fish to choose from). Toads do not bother too much about fish because their tadpoles are not very tasty.
When all is said and done it is the insects and snails that will be the judges of how good your pond is for wildlife. If they move in then other things will follow. Having submerged, floating and emergent plants in clean clear water is the basis for a healthy pond with thriving and varied wildlife.
If you want to know more, or join in this year's Big Pond Dip, contact Dr Jeremy Biggs or Dr Angela Julian at Pond Conservation. E-mail:firstname.lastname@example.org, Tel: 01865 48311.
This week sees the 2012 BRIT Awards take centre stage and the show is set to be a resounding success. Behind all the smiles, glitz and camera flashes what merit do these awards actually hold?
There are numerous forums and Facebook pages rallying for the awards to be renamed 'The Sh$! Awards' and I have to admit that I'm full of skepticism for the awards that are meant to represent the 'Best of British Music'.