Peregrine-spotting at Norwich Cathedral

My Beloved’s favourite birds are peregrines – and for a man who loves raptors of all descriptions as much as he does, that’s quite a statement.

 

So he was delighted when we got to see a couple of them in all their unadulterated glory the other weekend. While these lovely, majestic birds once nested predominantly on mountains and coastal cliff ledges, they can now also be found dwelling in urban edifices of all kinds – including cathedrals such as Norwich, which is where we spotted them on our little jaunt there.

 

In fact, for a few weeks now, we’ve actually been watching a pair of chicks grow, develop and get fluffier via a webcam strategically placed by the Hawk and Owl Trust, which is based in nearby Fakenham of thoroughbred horseracing fame. The chicks belong to a couple of peregrines, which incidentally mate for life, but first took up residence in 2011 on the Cathedral spire using a special platform put up by the Trust a knee-wobbling 75 metres above the ground.

 

Peregrine roosting spot at Norwich Cathedral
Peregrine roosting spot at Norwich Cathedral

And like similar breeding programmes elsewhere, the move seems to have been very successful. Which is just as well really seeing as last century, peregrines actually became an endangered species, with numbers falling to only 400 or so breeding pairs.

 

The population had initially started declining about 100 years ago during World War I when lots were killed off to stop them attacking carrier pigeons bringing home important intelligence from the front. Despite the fact that they don’t tend to munch on game birds such as pheasant or grouse much, preferring more medium-sized prey such pigeons and doves, peregrines were also a favourite target of gamekeepers too.

 

But the worst offenders of all were farmers using organo-chlorine pesticides, and especially the now infamous DDT, from the 1950s until it was banned in the 1980s. The problem was that the chemicals caused the shells of the birds’ eggs to thin, which meant that fewer survived through to the hatching stage. And when you have a situation where between 70% and 80% of all fledged youngsters die in their first year anyway, it’s not hard to see how disastrous such environmental pollution was to the peregrines’ wellbeing.

 

But populations have now recovered to such an extent that there are a much healthier 1,500 pairs across the UK, a scenario helped at least in part by the birds’ highly protected status. And so they should be – not only are these magnificent creatures our largest native falcon, but they are also intimately tied into our history due to their important role in the art of falconry.

 

Bird of choice

 

Although falconry is believed to have begun in Mesopotamia, with the earliest accounts dating the activity to approximately 2000 BC, it was apparently introduced to Europe around AD400 when the Huns and Alans invaded from the East. By 875AD, falconry was widely practised in Saxon England, but following the Norman conquest in 1066 it was restricted to the upper classes, and peasants could find themselves hanged for keeping hawks, which does seem a bit harsh.

 

While yeomen were assigned the privilege of using short-winged birds such as goshawks and sparrowhawks to hunt for food, it was only the King and his nobles who were allowed to own long-winged falcons such as peregrines and merlins.

 

But it wasn’t until the Middle Ages that falconry really took off as a sport, becoming a veritable status symbol among the nobility. They trained their raptors to hunt small prey such as rabbits and other birds and, as the activity did not involve face-to-face encounters with potentially dangerous creatures such as boar and stags, women were allowed to play too.

 

Interestingly though, it was peregrines with their keen intellect that became their birds of choice. Being relatively small, they are also relatively light to hold on the fist and particularly graceful in the air. They are also the fastest bird on the planet.

Peregine diving
Peregine diving

Attacking their prey by making spectacularly accurate dives of more than 200 miles per hour, peregrines opt to break its bones and knock it out of the sky rather than sully their talons in a bloody fight to the death, thus sanitising the whole macabre process.

 

What all of this means in a symbolic sense though is that falcons in general, and peregrines in particular, are all about focus. So if you believe in auguries and a peregrine comes into your sights, they are apparently reminding you to concentrate on your desires and goals, and do whatever it takes to realise them. To do so successfully, however, you’ll need to act in as methodical and strategic a fashion as any self-respecting peregrine would when out on a hunting trip.

 

But these beautiful birds also represent a visionary power that, if tuned into, can help you solve on-going dilemmas, or even discover your life’s purpose. And as such, their appearance implies a time of transition and change and the need to rise above your current situation.

 

So next time you happen to spot a peregrine, it might repay you to ponder on just what it is they’re trying to tell you. It certainly can’t do any harm anyway.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Urban foraging: Food that’s wild and free

Being a bit of a hippy at heart, I’ve really quite fancied the idea of doing some proper foraging for a while now.

 

On the one hand, if Armageddon were to strike, I’m sure being able to identify which plants are edible and which are likely to kill us off would be a fairly useful skill to have.

 

But on the other, it’s just a lovely, satisfying thing to do – to roam around in nature and truly know what it is you’re communing with at every level. In other words, being familiar with the culinary use of your chosen shrub or flower, its medicinal purpose and even its spiritual meaning, as they all have one. So it’s about getting to know the beautiful, green world around you and truly being at home and feeling part of it.

 

The most amazing foragers I’ve come across, it must be said though, are the Iban, a tribal people who live in the rainforest in Sarawak in the Malaysian part of Borneo. My Beloved and I went on holiday there a dozen or so years ago before the destruction of the forests by loggers and palm oil producers really started taking hold.

Iban longhouse
Iban longhouse

Sarawak at that time was known to be one of the six most biodiverse regions in the world and, amazingly, a hectare of rainforest there traditionally had more tree species in it than all of the European countries put together – until they started being ripped up to plant palm oil monocultures, that is, in order to feed the developed world’s apparently insatiable lust for the stuff.

 

Palm oil, it turns out, is a key ingredient in nearly half of all our mass-produced goods, ranging from cosmetics and toothpaste to cakes and sweets and we seem just as dependent on it as we are on black gold – and at a similar cost to the environment too.

 

Anyway, while we were in Borneo, we were lucky enough to spend a couple of nights in a longhouse with the Iban people in order to find out a bit more about where and how they lived. One fascinating morning, we went out on a rainforest walk with a guide who showed us plants to cure every kind of ailment, including one thought to have potential in the fight against AIDS.

 

But even more amazing was a canoe trip upstream into the rainforest. On stopping the boat at some apparently random spot, an Iban man threw a jala (throw-net) into the river and ended up with an impressive enough catch of pretty silver fish to feed our little party for both lunch and dinner.

 

Then on disembarking, our hosts started poking around in the fecund undergrowth and began pulling up what I would have sworn was a bunch of weeds, but which turned out to be the most delicious savoury accompaniment to our meal. This was cooked together with the fish in long bamboo poles buried in a hastily dug out pit by the water’s edge. It was gorgeous – and all the better for being devoured outdoors.

 

So suitably inspired on returning to the UK, I bought myself a “Food For Free” guidebook and dragged my Beloved out for a couple of Sundays on the trot to see what we could find.

 

To forage or not to forage?

 

I even did a foraging course in deepest Essex in a bid to get up close and personal with the help of a guide rather than simply try to work things out from a book. Sadly though, I could barely hear a word of what was said, let alone get near enough to spot the various plants under scrutiny as there were just too many people in the group. The only thing I gained from the experience, in fact, was a rather nice nettle soup at the end.

 

And so it all kind of fizzled out – until the end of last year, that is, when my parents asked what I’d like for Christmas. And it struck me that what I’d really like to do was go foraging with an expert again as a way of sparking a somewhat more sustained interest.

 

So one short Google search later and I’d unearthed Robin Harford, who seemed to come highly recommended – and with good reason. His enthusiasm and obvious passion for his subject proved infectious – despite the bitingly cold wind gusting through the somewhat desolate and deprived environs of Westbourne Park where our adventure took place.

 

Although Robin offers foraging courses up and down the country in plenty of rural hotspots, I’d been intrigued by the thought of what he might be able to conjure up in the great metropolis of London and so had signed up for a morning’s session there instead.

Westbourne Park
Westbourne Park

And I wasn’t disappointed. Although somewhat less than prepossessing at first glance, the Park proved to offer a veritable cornucopia of wild food that most of us, bar a few dogs, would simply pass by and not even notice. Traversing from one end to the other, we uncovered everything from chickweed (salad greens) and ransoms (wild garlic) to the flowers of Japanese ornamental quince (for salads and decoration).

 

It was just a pity that some of the residents of the dreary and alienating high-rise tower blocks didn’t get a chance to join us too as such nutritious free-of-charge additions to their diet might have proved welcome. One for Jamie Oliver’s Ministry of Food healthy cooking gang to think about maybe.

 

Or maybe not, if the likes of Bristol City Council has its way. Because the Council is proposing a series of 34 new by-laws to cover the 212 parks and green spaces around the town that, it is feared, would effectively put paid to foraging in the area – and possibly elsewhere if other local authorities follow suit.

 

The by-laws, which were put out to a consultation that ended on 20 March this year, include a ban on removing “the whole or any part of any plant, shrub or tree”, a stricture that could mean traditional activities such as blackberry-picking, scrumping apples and even pulling mushrooms are effectively outlawed.

 

Although the Council insisted that it was not trying to do any such thing, it also pointed out that it had received more than 3,000 complaints about “nuisance in parks” between 2011 and 2013 and so was trying to protect plants from damage as a result.

 

The problem is that, while it undoubtedly means well, a failure to think through the implications of its proposals in a thorough and careful fashion could have serious ramifications for us all.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Organic wine: Keeping it real

April, it turns out for all you imbibers out there, is Real Wine Month. Although the naïve among us may be thinking at this point, “well, isn’t all wine real?” it appears that some of it these days is more so than others.

 

So just what is Real Wine then, I hear you ask? First and foremost, it has to be organically produced – according to industry body the Soil Association, this means “lower levels of pesticides, no manufactured herbicides or artificial fertilisers and more environmentally sustainable management of the land and natural environment”.

 

And this approach, although scarcely ubiquitous, is definitely garnering respectable levels of sales since it started first appearing in supermarkets in the late 1990s. As a result, Bord Bia, the Irish Food Board, valued the UK’s organic wine market at about £12 million last year, while the Soil Association’s Organic Market Report 2016 indicated that organic’s share of the total UK food and drink sector was a respectable 1.4%.

 

So far, so good, particularly in a world where more and more people are interested in the provenance of their victuals and are keen to reduce the amount of chemicals smothering them at every turn of the production process.

 

But an interesting subset of the organic market is the lesser-known biodynamic movement. Started by Austrian philosopher and esotericist Rudolf Steiner in 1924, it aims to ensure that farms and vineyards are based on balanced ecosystems in order to “renew the vitality of the earth, the integrity of our food, and the health and wholeness of our communities”.

 

This means that, in the words of the UK’s Biodynamic Association, which was set up in 1929, these sites must become self-contained living organisms “with a healthy balance of animals (livestock), crops and wild plants”. But they also have to be ecologically, socially and economically sustainable in order to warrant using the internationally recognised but fiercely difficult-to-obtain Demeter Certification Mark, which covers both production and processing activities.

 

Biodynamics is not just of this earthly plane, however – it also has a spiritual element. As the Association points out: “It is founded on a holistic and spiritual understanding of nature and the human being”, which means that “the farm, its crops and the farmer becomes more attuned to local seasonal and broader celestial cycles and rhythms”.

 

To this end, an astronomical calendar based on the moon’s sidereal cycle is used to determine auspicious times to plant, cultivate and harvest. The soil must also be treated with special herb-based preparations. For example, compost is made from six medicinal plants including oak bark, which has to be stored in a mature cow, sheep, pig or horse’s head as this is said to act as a catalyst for fermentation.

 

Keeping it real

 

While such ideas may not be everyone’s cup of tea, the approach does undoubtedly seem to work. For example, my Beloved has developed an unfortunate intolerance to sulphites, which have traditionally been used as preservatives during the wine-making process.

 

Give him a regular glass of something and, by next morning, his poor lips will have swollen up like he’s just had a load of botox. But pass him a glass of pure biodynamic loveliness and everything’s fine and dandy. It may cost that little bit extra but it has to be worth it to lose that rather unflattering trout-pout look.

 

And he’s not the only one being won over. While Marks & Spencer already stocks a handful of such wines, Waitrose apparently sells more than 20 different biodynamic varieties and growing.

 

Even more intriguingly, both supermarkets also apparently arrange their wine-tasting sessions around “good” and “bad” days in the biodynamic calendar as they swear you can taste the difference.

 

So despite the fact that yields based on this approach are significantly lower than more traditional methods – 25 to 30 hectare litres per hectare compared with the usual 40 – interest is growing, especially among vineyards in the Loire Valley, Alsace and part of the Languedoc in France as well as in Penedes, which is south of Barcelona in Spain.

 

The final, and even more rarified, category of vino to fall under the banner of Real Wine, meanwhile, is natural wine. Although there is no official definition for or certification of this approach, it basically means producing your wine with minimum intervention, which includes picking all of your grapes by hand. You also can’t go around sticking little added extras into the mix such as sulphites, sugar or external flavouring from oak barrels, and you’re not allowed to take things away either, for example by filtration.

 

While there are a number of natural wine associations in central Europe and countries such as France, Italy, Spain, the most likely place to get a sip of the stuff is at events like The Real Wine Fair, which is taking place from 17 to 18 April at Tobacco Dock in Wapping, London.

 

But you never know, you might also be able to find it on the wine list or catalogue of one of the 200 or so restaurants, bars and independent retailers also taking part in the Real Wine Month festivities. Our very own Joseph Barnes Wines here in Saffron Walden, in fact, hosted a most enjoyable wine-tasting event last Saturday night – and much biodynamic merriment was had by all. Cos one of the secrets to success really is about keeping it real. Always.

 

 

 

 

Saving our sacred trees: Oak, ash and hawthorn

I was horrified to learn last week that the iconic ash tree could well be wiped out across Europe over the next few years – and that includes the UK, despite the at least partial protection bestowed on us by being an island.

 

The problem, it seems, is not just the fungal disease ash dieback, which we’ve all heard about for a number of years now as it creeps its malignant way across the continent. The disease, which was first identified in England in 2012 in a consignment of imported trees 20 years after initially being discovered in Eastern Europe, has since spread from Norfolk and Suffolk to as far as South Wales. And, worst case scenario, it has the potential to destroy 95% of our native ash trees.

 

But as if that wasn’t enough, according to the latest research published in the Journal of Ecology, the poor ashes now have a double whammy to contend with in the shape of a deadly flying beetle called the emerald ash borer, which could well do for the rest.

 

The beetle in question is bright green and, like ash dieback, is an invasive species brought in from Asia. Although not yet in the UK, it is spreading west from Moscow at a rate of 25 miles per year and is already thought to have reached Sweden.

 

While the adult beetles feed on ash trees, they aren’t actually the ones that cause the damage. Instead it is their larvae that wreak havoc as they bore under the bark and into the wood, thus killing the tree in the process.

 

Not only is this situation a tragedy in its own right, of course, but if the ash were wiped out, it would undoubtedly change the face of the British countryside for ever. Ash is one of the UK’s most abundant trees – it is our most common hedgerow components, with a vast 60,000 miles of it up and down the country. It is also our second most prevalent woodland tree after the oak and is a popular fixture in most towns and cities.

 

Ash tree
Ash tree

So losing it would also have a severe impact on biodiversity. Some 1,000 or so native species rely on the ash as their habitat, including 12 types of birds, 55 mammals and more than 100 species of lichens, fungi and insects. This means that the affect of its disappearance would take on epic proportions – an even worse scenario than losing our 15 million or so elms in the 1970s to Dutch elm disease.

 

The tree of life

 

But just as epic would be the ash’s loss to the country in symbolic terms. In British/Celtic folklore, it is particularly associated with healing, protection and enchantment and, somewhat scarily in this context, it is actually known as the World Tree.

 

According to the Celtic world order, it vertically spans between worlds from the waters of Annwn (where spirits dwell before birth/rebirth), Abred (physical world), Gwynvid (Heaven/Nirvana) and into Ceugant (God/Goddess/Spirit).

 

In this way, it symbolises the Cosmic Axis of the universe or the central column of the Tree of Life, with its branches spreading into Otherworldly realms and its roots into the lower worlds – hence the ancient Druidic saying “Know yourself and you will know the world.”

 

In Viking mythology, meanwhile, the ash is known as Yggdrasil or the World Tree too. Standing at the centre of the Norse cosmos, its upper branches cradled Asgard, the home and fortress of the gods and goddesses of whom Odin was the supreme deity and All-Father, while its lower boughs spread across the countries of the world and its roots reached down into the Underworld.

 

Yggdrasil grew out of the Well of Urd, a pool holding many of the most powerful beings in the universe. These included three wise maidens known as the Norns who exerted more influence over the course of destiny than anyone else in the cosmos by carving runes into Yggdrasil’s trunk. These symbols then carried their intentions throughout the tree, affecting everything in the Nine Worlds.

 

But Odin envied their powers and wisdom and so in order to prove himself worthy, hung himself from a branch of Yggdrasil for nine days and nights until the secrets of the runes were revealed to him.

 

So given its apparently central role in the destiny of the universe and all its creatures, you tremble to think what it would signify if the ash were to die. In fact, it simply doesn’t bear thinking about, not least because, again in the Celtic world view, the ash was the all-embracing World Mother, the feminine counterpart to the All-Father tree, the oak – which just as worryingly appears to be in trouble too.

 

Oak tree
Oak tree

Again the oak, our national tree, is under attack on two fronts. Chronic oak dieback, a complex condition involving the interaction of damaging abiotic and abiotic factors such as high winds, recurrent drought and opportunistic assaults from insects and fungi on already weakened trees, has had a damaging impact for nearly a century now, with the worst outbreak taking place between 1989 and 1994.

 

Aboreal trinity

 

But since the 1980s, acute oak decline has also been taking its toll mostly across East Anglia, the Midlands and Southern England as far west as Somerset. You can tell an infected tree by the emergence of a dark fluid oozing from cracks in the bark caused by the so-called oak jewel beetle – and death occurs within a mere four or five years of symptoms first appearing.

 

But again the importance of the oak to this land in symbolic rather than pure biodiversity terms cannot be underestimated. Synonymous with courage, strength, endurance and steadfastness, oak trees were perceived to be protectors and guardians of the virtuous.

 

Being the tree of the Dagda, the father god also known as the good god because he protected the crops, the oak was considered the most sacred by the Celts and their Druid religious leaders. Considered a means of accessing spiritual wisdom, it was also seen as a portal to the Otherworld – and so unsurprisingly, oak groves or “nematons” were special places where Druids chose to hold their religious ceremonies.

 

The Anglo-Saxons, meanwhile, dedicated their oak groves to Thunor, otherwise known as Thor, the god of thunder, in the south and east of England, with the village of Thundersley in Essex being a case in point. Like the ash, oaks were said to “court the lightening flash” and are still commonly believed to be hit more than any other tree.

 

The final one to complete the trio, however, which thankfully has remained disease-free to date, is the hawthorn. If found growing beside the oak and ash, it was said to be part of a “fairy triad”, which attracted the Fae or spirits of nature who would dance at twilight to celebrate Mother Earth’s abundant beauty.

 

If standing by a sacred spring or holy well, however, the hawthorn acted as a threshold to the Otherworld, and had links to the Welsh goddess, Olwen. Known as the White Goddess of the Hawthorn, it was her white track of hawthorn petals that became the Milky Way when she walked the empty universe, or so the myth goes anyway.

 

Hawthorn
Hawthorn

But at one time simply known as “May”, the tree was also closely associated with the eponymous month, which was the time for courtship and love-making after the cold of winter. All of which means that the hawthorn symbolised fertility, sacred union and the unity of male and female energies, thus forming the third branch of the arboreal Trinity. And so if we can manage to keep that one safe at least, there might just be hope for us yet.

 

 

Waste: What a load of rubbish

I don’t know about you, but I’m getting sick of Christmas already – and it’s only November.

Too many restaurants and pubs are, in my view, pushing glittering Christmas dos with gay abandon. The shops are full of gift-boxed this and sparkly that. And you can barely get your hands on a birthday card these days as so many have been banished and replaced by their Christmas cousins. Bah humbug, yes. But it’s all a bit excessive really.

Christmas shopping
Christmas shopping

Particularly when you consider the sheer amount of rubbish that the rampant materialism behind it all generates. It’s bad enough during the rest of the year – for example, did you know that the UK produced a vast 200 million tonnes of waste during 2012, the last year that figures were available?

Commercial and industrial activities created nearly a quarter of it, according to the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. But households were also responsible for a shocking 14%, and only 44% of that was recycled.

Thankfully though, a lot less is going into rubbish dumps than it used to. While the figure was about 90% in 2009, it’s more like 50% today and is forecast to drop to just 10% by 2020 as a result of positive action. Most notable here is the 1996 landfill tax, which led to a push towards recycling and the introduction of incineration as a means of generating electricity.

Anyway, I don’t know whether you’ve watched celebrity chef-turned-environmental campaigner Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’s ‘War on Waste’ programme on the BBC over the last few weeks, but it threw up some shocking statistics of its own.

The focus more than anything else, understandably given his background, was on food waste – a particular bugbear of mine too, especially after living in South Africa and seeing the rampant and distressing levels of poverty and deprivation there. People would give their eye teeth for any of the tender morsels we throw away without a second thought, and they routinely feed their families at a minute fraction of the cost – even taking cost of living issues into account.

Food waste

So I was horrified to learn from Hugh’s programme that a massive third of all food produced in the UK is never actually eaten. Resource efficiency charity Wrap  indicates, in fact, that the country’s total food waste amounts to a vast 15 million tonnes – even though a disgraceful 13 million people in a rich country such as ours routinely struggle to afford to eat.

But there’s no single culprit here. For instance, each of the UK’s 26.7 million households waste on average 16% of the food they buy each week. That’s about a day’s worth and is valued at roughly £15 (or £840 per year).

Food waste
Food waste

One issue here is that too many people simply don’t use their five senses to check whether food is still OK but throw it out as soon as the ‘use by’ date is passed. Another is that they often don’t plan their meals and so end up buying too many things they don’t need, wasting lots of money in the process. And natural resources, electricity, manpower etc etc.

But as Wrap points out, a huge 11 million households have access to food waste collection services on their doorstep. So there’s no excuse for any of it going into landfill really.

Equally as bad though are the supermarkets. On the one hand, they only accept produce that is grown to exacting cosmetic standards, which means the rest has to either go for animal feed or is simply trashed.

And this despite the fact that, in 2000 and 2008, the UK lost 40% of its potato yield due to inclement weather and made up the shortfall with ugly veg that would previously have been rejected. And guess what? No one, but no one even noticed.

On the other hand though, supermarkets also seem to have a bad habit of changing orders at the last minute, even if a crop has been pulled, which means that it goes to waste and farmers end up being out of pocket – to the extent that nearly half of British farms are now losing money.

But a third issue is actually the most insidious of all – that is, the deliberate and systematic over-ordering of goods so that stores can guard against empty shelves. Because that means, of course, not being able to make that all-important sale to people who are going to waste loads of what they’ve just bought anyway. It definitely explains the emergence of modern-day pursuits such as skip-diving.

Insatiable demand

And the catering industry’s no better. According to Hugh, it chucks out the equivalent of two billion meals every year. Two billion. Enough food to feed the hungry, in this country at least, surely?

Unfortunately, I can go on. In a disposable fashion society such as ours, Wrap says we now throw away an estimated £140 million worth of used clothing – the equivalent of 350,000 tonnes – each year. That’s just under £400,000 worth each day. Which goes directly into landfill. Not to charity shops or onto our family or friends. To landfill.

Disposable fashion
Disposable fashion

The average UK household, meanwhile, owns around £4,000 worth of garments, around 30% of which haven’t been worn for at least a year. Which means, on average, we possess four times more in apparel terms than we did 30 years ago.

But we’re not the only ones affected by our own rampant consumerism. According to Nick Grono, chief executive of the Freedom Fund, the first private donor fund set up to try and end modern day slavery, our insatiable demand for cheap goods, which rely on finite natural resources, is not just wrecking the environment.

It is also creating incentives for unscrupulous organisations to use illegal, forced labour to avoid the scrutiny of the authorities while indulging in activities that damage the environment still further.

Examples here include the enslaving of desperate migrants from Myanmar and Cambodia on fishing boats in Thailand. They, in turn, strip the oceans of fish, thereby as Grono says, “perpetuating the cycle of devastation and exploitation”. Ditto the gangs of young men in Brazil who are trapped by debt into illegal logging in the Amazon rainforest.

But the problem, as James Lovelock’s Gaia theory states, is that we’re all interlinked – and very closely. So if we hurt Mother Earth, ultimately we just end up hurting ourselves too.