Tuesday 29 August 2023

A Short History of Trains by Christian Wolmar


Trains offer a great way to travel, as they are generally the safest and most environmentally friendly mode of transport. I also have a fondness for trains, due to two personal connections. My great-grandfather, Mr Train was a station-master (his son Mr Train junior married a Miss Driver, thankfully they didn't take a double barrelled name!). Additionally, I was born in Manchester, which was host to the world's first major railway line, the Liverpool to Manchester line which opened in 1830. So, all in all, this book was a must-read for me. 

A Short History of Trains is a fascinating history of trains and railways, from the first steam engines to the most technologically advanced, high-speed trains of today. The book is packed full of interesting facts and anecdotes, historical photos and diagrams. There are a few pages of illustrations of different styles of railway carriages, and important statistics are scattered through the book.

The book looks at the history of the first railways in various parts of the world. The construction of these railroads met with difficult terrain, tough working conditions and often resistance from local people who lived on the land the railways were to be built across. I was struck by this anecdote about the development of early lines in the USA:

The local tribe demanded $10,000 dollars (around £185, 000 in today's money) for the right of way. Appalled, the railroad works manager blustered that the land was no good for anything else apart from growing corn or potatoes. The local chief responded 'it pretty good for railroad' and got the money. 

We are also told about the dark history of the inhumane treatment of prisoners of war who built the Burma to Siam (now Thailand) railway and the role railroads played in Nazi atrocities.  

 The book also looks at how railroads impacted communities, bringing more people into an area and stimulating the local economy. In addition, as it became easier for people to travel between areas, then they could move around for work, spread ideas and meet a greater variety of people.  It considers the changing fortunes of trains as they competed with the introduction of cars, then the spread of cheap air travel and compares rail transport systems across the world (Switzerland has a very impressive travel infrastructure where railways are fully integrated with buses, boats and trams and, unexpectedly perhaps, Saudi Arabia is investing heavily in a rail network.) The impressive technological feats required in building high altitude train tracks are celebrated, and significant rail disasters are examined.

Most trains these days run on electricity and are therefore less polluting (though less characterful) than earlier steam trains. Freight trains are the most resource efficient way of transporting large quantities of freight and are important even in countries where passenger services are diminished compared to previous years. High speed rail has made it possible for trains to compete with planes (though, and this isn't covered in the book, the proposed development of high speed rail lines in the UK has been met with justifiable opposition due to proposals to destroy several areas of ancient woodland in order to make way for the railway lines. As I've said before, the creation of green infrastructure shouldn't mean destroying valuable natural habitats). Even slower trains offer a good alternative to either cars (you can relax on a train rather than having to stay alert as a driver) or to planes (you avoid the hassle of the airports and the train station is closer to the centre of town compared to the airport).

So this is a fascinating book for anyone interested in the history of trains. 

A Short History of Trains by Christian Wolmar, published (2019) by DK

Sunday 27 August 2023

Flower Meadows at Figgate Park

Yesterday we had a lovely walk around Edinburgh's Figgate Park, which stretches along part of the Figgate Burn, which is lined with trees including this weeping willow

 The park also includes a pond, with water lilies in one corner.

The park is often a great place to see birds and at this time of year, the flower meadows and planters are looking lovely.

There were quite a few insects around too, which was nice to see as this year hasn't been generally a good year for insects. Speckled Wood Butterflies have two broods in a year and the late brood are out and about now 

Several hoverflies too, including this Long Hoverfly (thanks to Crafty Green Boyfriend for this excellent photo)

The park has lovely views across to Arthur's Seat 

And we met this lovely cat, who was initially very aloof, but eventually came over to say hello.

Friday 25 August 2023

Wildflower Meadow at Scottish Parliament

The Scottish Parliament building sits at the edge of Edinburgh's Holyrood Park. The landscaping around the building includes wildflower meadows that look lovely at this time of year. These are wildflower meadows that have grown from specially sown seeds, rather than being actual natural wildflower meadows, but they are still valuable for pollinating insects and at this time of year birds such as Goldfinches feed on the seeds of some of the plants. Yesterday, I was leading a birdwatching walk around Arthur's Seat and arrived early to take some photos of these wildflower meadows.

The poppies are looking at their best just now 

as are the scabious plants, which are still in bloom

even though some of the scabious flowers have gone to seed (and the seed heads look lovely)

The Common Carder bees seemed to be enjoying this plant 

I was very impressed with this sign in the car-park near Holyrood House

I hope lots of people take the chance to use the provided litter pickers to carry out short litter picks! And to return the litter pickers afterwards!

Monday 21 August 2023

Cast your Vote for the Woodland Trust Tree of the Year!

Every year, the Woodland Trust runs a competition to find the Tree of the Year in the UK. Trees are nominated for their age or importance, in some cases their historical importance, in others because they have been threatened with destruction and the local community has rallied round them. The winner will represent the UK in the European Tree of the Year competition!

Voting is open until Sunday 15 October, and this year's winner will be announced on Thursday 19 October.

Find out more and cast your vote here

Sunday 20 August 2023

Roses in Saughton Park

We had a nice walk in Saughton Park yesterday. Some of the late roses were looking particularly fine

and some are still in bud 

There's a lovely stone rose near one of the entrances to the park 

We were pleased to see a few hoverflies around, though it was difficult to get photos as it was very windy most of the time. This Sun Fly (aka Footballer Hoverfly) Helophilus pendulus stayed still for long enough on this Yarrow plant to be photographed


Meanwhile I'm delighted to have another haiku featured in the Haiku Girl Summer, this time in the Sun-baked issue! You can read the whole issue here

Friday 18 August 2023

A Natural History of the Hedgerow by John Wright

 A Natural History of the Hedgerow by John Wright

This is a book that explores the history and natural history not just of hedgerows, but of other field boundaries including ditches, dykes and dry stone walls. 

Much of the United Kingdom's agricultural landscape has been traditionally broken up by hedgerows, living field boundaries that consist of a variety of shrubs and occasional trees and that offer home to many species of bird, mammal and insect. Hedgerows have declined with changes in agricultural practice, but they are rightly valued as being vital for wildlife. 

A Natural History of the Hedgerow opens with several excellent chapters outlining the history of field boundaries, starting in prehistoric Britain and moving through changing agricultural fashions up to the current time. It is interesting how hedges have at certain times been disliked as symbols of the removal of the common rights to land for grazing and, as now, loved as valuable homes for wildlife. 

Following on from the history of hedges, the book looks at the politics of hedge protection, outlining government schemes and the associated issues and controversies, including the need to focus funding on the right methods of preserving hedges. The author notes the importance of conserving the original hedge itself, rather than removing it and replacing it with new seedlings: 

"It is simply impossible to replace a hedge by planting half a dozen suitable woody species in a row. Yes, it will, if looked after, form a hedge, but not the hedge that was there before, which may have been the product of many centuries and will contain an array of species that cannot be replaced in a few days' planting"

The hedge needs to be seen as more than just the woody plants that form the main part of this type of field boundary to take in the surrounding areas of field or road verge and ditch or embankment. Many species use all parts of this ecosystem, for example the Yellowhammer "feeds in the verge, nests in the hedge bottom, hides from predators in the shrubs and uses the trees to perch and sing."

The third part of the book is made up of a field guide to species found in hedges.  Given that thousands of species (of plants, animals and fungi) can be found in one hedge, this guide is necessarily concise. Although the section outlining the most important shrub and tree species (especially Hawthorn) is very interesting, the rest of the wildlife is dealt with in an unsatisfying way, birds being dismissed as "nasty, feathery things that fly away before you can identify them." which seems an unnecessarily negative comment, given that hedges are vital habitats for many species of birds that are declining. 

The last section of the book gives a brief overview of how to lay a hedge and maintain field boundaries. 

This is an interesting book for anyone interested in the history and importance of hedgerows, but don't expect a useful field guide.

 A Natural History of the Hedgerow by John Wright, published (2016) by Profile Books.


Related Links: 

England's vital hedges under threat  on The Guardian website.

The UK Government is currently consulting the public on hedge management, you can find out more and (if you're a UK resident) take part here


Meanwhile I'm delighted to have a haiku included in the bird themed issue of Haiku Girl Summer.

Wednesday 16 August 2023

Hydrangeas and Nasturtiums

 We spent some time with Crafty Green Boyfriend's Mum yesterday and I got these photos in her garden. The Hydrangea is at its best at the moment:

Meanwhile the nasturtiums have taken over part of the raised bed!

All parts of the nasturtium plant are edible and can also be used in herbal medicine. You can find out more here. I need to start adding nasturtium flowers to my salads! 

The cooking apple tree was also looking great

but I'll say more about that in the next Tree Following update!

Monday 14 August 2023

Coming Soon! Second Hand September

When you shop second hand and donate unwanted clothes to second hand shops, you reduce waste, take a stylish stance against climate change, and help create a fairer world.

Apart from underwear and shoes, I always buy second hand clothes. Not just clothes either, most of my books are second hand (though I like to buy new books when they are from small, independent publishers) as are many of our household items. Most recently, an old pedal bin broke. A bin isn't something I would normally think of buying second hand, but none of the local hardware shops had any bins and I found myself buying a bin from a local second hand shop. It's in excellent condition too.

Second Hand September is all about celebrating second hand clothing! Can you commit, for the whole month, to buying only second hand clothes? And don't forget to donate your pre-loved items! Find out more about Second Hand September here and sign up to take part here

Finally, here are some other ways to reduce the impact of your own clothing. Here are just a few:

  • Avoid fabrics with a high environmental footprint, such as non-organic cotton, leather and synthetic fibres

  • Choose organic cotton and other natural fabrics that are produced without toxic chemicals

  • Choose brands that are taking steps to reduce their environmental impact

  • Wash your clothes less often and only at 30 degrees

  • Buy less, choose well and make it last

Sunday 13 August 2023

Arthur's Seat


We had a lovely walk round Arthur's Seat yesterday. We were lucky with the weather too, while we were walking we only had a little bit of light drizzle, and then when we were safely inside for lunch it started raining quite heavily. You can see the rain-clouds moving in, in the photo below 

Arthur's Seat is always a good place to see wildlife, and yesterday we were very lucky with our bird sightings. We watched two Buzzards gliding around, though we couldn't get them both in the same photo!

This young Carrion Crow seemed to be waiting patiently for its parents to come and feed it

Dunsapie Loch was full of birds, including this family of Mute Swans

this Black Headed Gull, already in winter plumage 

On the loch there were also a family of Little Grebes, a family of Mallards, a young Grey Heron and a female Tufted Duck

We also saw a pair of Ravens, but they were impossible to photograph as they kept disappearing behind the hill. 

We were delighted to see two Roe Deer in the field down below (though we could only get one of them in a photo)

Despite the wet weather there were a good few insects around, including quite a few Cinnabar Moth caterpillars,

which feed exclusively in ragwort  

too often ragwort is removed from public places, but, contrary to popular opinion, it is not a dangerous plant except for grazing mammals, and even then it isn't (apparently) harmful if it is alive, but only if it is harvested as silage and then fed to the animals).

It's always nice to find ladybirds, such as this Seven Spot Ladybird

The damp conditions also brought out this large black slug 

and this Garden Snail 

And it was nice to see the Herb Robert, which is showing off its seed pods, showing why this group of plants is also known as Cranesbills

Thanks to Crafty Green Boyfriend for taking all the photos in this post!

Thursday 10 August 2023

House Sparrows behaving like Flycatchers

I was leading a birdwatching walk yesterday at Saughton Park today and made sure I arrived early. I spent a nice few minutes standing on this bridge watching a group of House Sparrows flying around and catching insects (probably mostly flying ants, which are around at the moment) in the air above the river. This struck me as fairly unusual behaviour for House Sparrows, I've certainly never seen a group of them doing this together.

I didn't take any more photos during the walk, but we had a nice wander and saw a good variety of birds including: Treecreeper climbing a tree trunk; Greenfinch singing on top of a tree: Goldfinch; Long Tailed Tits (including a large family group); Mallard; Lesser Black Backed Gull; Grey Heron and Robin.

We noticed a lot of gulls flying above the park, possibly feeding on the same flying ants as the House Sparrows.

Why Birds Sing by David Rothenberg

 Why Birds Sing

 Birdsong is one of the great delights of any naturalist's life, and this book explores the fascinating question of why birds sing. The author is a philosopher and musician and, after playing his clarinet to a laughing thrush, became interested in the similarities between birdsong and human music. 

Birdsong has always been important to people. The author shares stories of how Aboriginal Australians beleive that the lyrebird (which mimics the songs of other species) gave the other birds their voices, and the Hopi people of North America believe something similar about the mocking bird. 

The book outlines the development of scientific studies of birdsong from recordings and annotation of songs in the field to the surely ethically dubious dissection of bird brains to find out how song works. The author discusses the ethics of these experiments and is clearly not entirely comfortable with them:

 "... scientists ought to spend a little time...trying to justify the practice, rather than simply accepting its validity. Not even one songbird should be slaughtered without some pang of guilt"

He goes on to argue for the need for open discussion about the ethics of killing birds for science, but seems, finally, to accept that given the birds are well looked after before being 'sacrificed' (as the scientists like to say) that the experiments are worth it. I'm not sure, birdsong is a wonder in itself, I don't feel the need to kill the singer to find out where the song comes from.   

The best part of the book are the anecdotes, such as the experience of Marianne Engel with her pet starlings:

"Another bird would imitate the soft sound of the fluorescent light above his cage, especially one time when the power was out, as if yearning for the light to come back. A third copied a teapot's whistle and when Engle got a new, non-whistling kettle, the bird would still whistle whenever the pot was placed on the stove"

Birdsong is becoming rarer as many species are declining, and the author ends a book with a plea to preserve nature so that future generations can continue to enjoy the beauty of birdsong.

The book is very technical in places, including lots of sonograms (graphs of sounds) and extracts of musical notation. This makes it slightly less accessible if you're not comfortable and familiar with these two methods of representing sound. 

Why Birds Sing by David Rothenberg published by Basic Books (2005)


Tuesday 8 August 2023

Comely Bank Cemetery


Early this morning I had a lovely walk round Comely Bank cemetery. I headed straight for the wildflower patch, hoping that the Wild Carrot would be in full bloom and I wasn't disappointed! At this time of year, this beautiful umbellifer is still in flower, with the distinctive red flowers at the centre of the inflorescence, which you can see below, you may want to click on the photo to enlarge it

At the same time, some of the flowers have already set seed and at this stage, the shape of the inflorescence totally changes

The wildflower patch is also home to Large Bindweed 

and thistles, which are currently seeding 

There are many beautiful trees in the cemetery 

While I was walking round, this Silver Birch Tree below was the centre of activity for a number of birds including Long Tailed Tits, Blue Tits, Chiffchaffs and a Great Spotted Woodpecker. A small group of House Martins were flying overhead.

For Nature Notes.