Saturday, 18 April 2020

Habitat Destruction and the European Rabbit

The European Rabbit is in Danger!
European Rabbit (Photo: Steve Andrews)

There’s a strip of woodland and scrub five minutes from where I live, and nearly every day I connect with nature by walking through it. Although it has busy roads separating it from larger sections of the Portuguese countryside, and is near to houses, this parcel of land has a wonderful selection of wildflowers and of wildlife, including butterflies, birds, reptiles, and a colony of European Rabbits. At least, there was a rabbit warren there until recently. I have been watching an example of habitat destruction on my doorstep! A team of workmen, bulldozers and JCBs have ruined where the rabbits live, transforming it into something neat and tidy, a place that shows the human view of how things should be. It is no longer a world and a home for European Rabbits, at least I have not seen any since the men were there. Of course, I never could get close to any of the rabbits I would see on happier days, but just knowing they were there gave me a good feeling. A sense of contentment that all was well in a parcel of countryside, right by where I live. The sandy soil in this location is ideal for a rabbit to burrow in and trees and bushes, brambles and other vegetation, provide a place to hide away from walkers with dogs. The European Rabbit has many threats to its life to watch out for: natural predators and humans who hunt. Rabbit hunting is a tradition in many places. Men with guns and dogs get pleasure from this. These hunters would argue that it is a traditional way of providing food for their families and meat for the market. It is a serious threat to rabbit populations though, especially coupled with the devastating effects of the deadly Myxomatosis plague that was unleashed many years ago. The Rabbit Calcivirus has also contributed to the decline of this once very common mammal, which the International Union For Conservation Of Nature (IUCN) in 2018 classified as Endangered for the animal’s current Conservation Status. In Portugal, the Iberian Lynx, a species that is struggling for survival as well, depends on rabbit populations, because these once common mammals are its main prey. Efforts to help the Lynx return are doomed to failure unless rabbit numbers can be increased a lot as well. One form of life depends on another, as links in a food chain, and parts of the web of life.
After the work was done! (Photo: Steve Andrews)
But getting back to what has happened in the woodland near my home: over a period of about 10 days, the workmen levelled a large area of mixed grassland and scrub, they chopped down some pine and willow trees, cut down bushes, drastically thinned out and pruned back any clumps of saplings, and then bulldozed right through where the rabbits had their burrows, which was in a wooded area at the bottom of a slope. The men have constructed a wide channel here that runs in the direction of one of the bordering roads. I thought maybe they were going to lay a large pipeline of some description but this didn’t happen and they have ceased work. Perhaps the channel is intended as somewhere water can run because it does follow on from a stream higher up in the woodland.
They cleaned this part up too! (Photo: Steve Andrews)
Perhaps it is intended as a flood defence? As for the destruction of trees and bushes, that was probably land clearance as a defence against wildfires, which are now a serious threat in Portugal. Now the men have all gone and I am left wondering, is this because they completed their work or have they been laid off due to the ongoing CoronaVirus lockdown at time of writing? Whatever the answer is, it appears the rabbits have gone too. Did they manage to escape? Did they run away in time? If so, where have they gone? What does a European Rabbit do when evicted from its home? If they did escape they have been subjected to a terrifying experience for the whole colony. My daily pleasure of seeing rabbits has gone. Now when I walk in this bit of countryside I am on the lookout for signs the rabbits have survived. I am looking for new burrows, I am looking for piles of rabbit poo on paths, but so far I have seen none. It leaves me feeling sad and is yet one more example of habitat destruction I have witnessed. There have been many throughout my life, from ponds that are drained to become flowerbeds or levelled ground, to meadows that become housing developments.  Now here in Portugal, I feel like I have been watching a real-life chapter from Watership Down!

Sunday, 23 February 2020

Natterjack Toads are very rare in the UK but breed in pools at the side of the road in Portugal

Natterjacks like temporary pools and puddles
Natterjack Toad (Photo by Bernard DUPONT)

The Natterjack Toad (Epidalea calamita) is one of the rarest amphibians in the UK and only found in several scattered colonies in coastal areas in England, Scotland and one in Wales where it has been reintroduced. It is the only native species of toad in Ireland where it lives in a few locations. In many parts of Europe, however, it is far more widely distributed, and in Portugal it even breeds in temporary pools and puddles at the side of the road near where I live.
Roadside pool (Photo by Steve Andrews)
Pool with tadpoles (Photo by Steve Andrews)
Unlike the Common Toad (Bufo bufo), which likes large ponds and lakes, the Natterjack uses pools that are likely to dry up later in the year. This is a great danger for its tadpoles because the water may all evaporate before they have grown big enough to become toadlets and to leave. Many tadpoles perish when the pools become no more than cracked mud. Lucky ones will be in pools with deeper water that takes longer before it has all gone. There is an advantage to this seemingly reckless breeding behaviour though, because the pools the Natterjack chooses have no predators, such as newts and dragonfly nymphs in them. The Natterjack actually favours pools that do not even have any vegetation, and are just a few inches of water covering sand or mud. Somehow they manage to find enough to eat in these conditions.
Natterjack Toad Tadpoles (Photo by Steve Andrews)
The tadpoles are much smaller than Common Toad tadpoles too and they can complete their metamorphosis in as short a time as six weeks. It is a race against time when warm weather dries up the water they depend on. Last year, where I live, this species was unlucky because drought set in with hot sunny weather and all the pools dried up totally. I had moved some of the tadpoles to pools with more water but even my effort to help them was in vain because none of tadpoles had even developed their back legs when all the water was evaporated in the heat. This year, I am hoping that some, at least, will survive. We have had a lot or rain earlier on and the temporary pools where I find tadpoles of this species currently still have plenty of water, although it is starting to go down. In the UK, the Natterjack is mainly found in coastal locations where temporary ponds form in dunes and sandy areas by the sea, on the continent and Portugal, however, it is also found inland. The male Natterjack attracts others of his kind to a suitable stretch of water with a loud and rasping call but only does this at night. By day, these toads hide in burrows in the sand, and they favour sandy locations, such as dunes and heathland.
The Natterjack can be recognised because it has a yellow stripe down the middle of its back. It cannot jump well and tends to walk fast, which has led to it also being known as the “Running Toad.” When I was a boy I always dreamed of finding a Natterjack Toad but never did. It was very rare all those years ago too. I am amazed to find this very rare amphibian breeding in muddy pools by a main road near where I live.

Wednesday, 19 February 2020

Searching for Birthwort with the Spanish Festoon Butterfly

Searching for Birthwort with the Spanish Festoon Butterfly

Spanish Festoon (Photo: Steve Andrews)
The Spanish Festoon (Zerynthia rumina) is a very pretty butterfly in the Papilionidae or Swallowtail butterfly family. It has strikingly patterned wings of yellow, red and dark brown with zig-zag markings on its hindwings. It is found in Spain, Portugal, North Africa and southern France. I have seen the butterflies in scrubland and pine and oak forest near where I live, but until today I have never seen any of the Birthwort species (Aristolochia spp) this butterfly uses as food-plants for their caterpillars.

I have lived in Quinta do Conde in Portugal for the last five years but have never managed to find any type of Birthwort growing here so it has been a real mystery for me, as to how these butterflies survive here. Today after a lot of searching, I discovered a clump of Round-leaved Birthwort (A. rotunda) growing amongst trees and heather at the top of a bank.
Spanish Festoon habitat (Photo: Steve Andrews)

I had to climb up to find it, and this is why I had never seen it before, although I often walk through this part of the woodland. A female Spanish Festoon has to find this plant or other Birthwort species on which to lay her eggs. There are no other options. The distribution of the food-plants, as is the case with most butterflies and moths, is one of the main factors responsible for the distribution of these insects. In fact, if you find a colony of a particular butterfly or moth, you can be fairly certain that the plants the larvae of that specific species need will be growing nearby. 
Round-leaved Birthwort (Photo: Steve Andrews)

The Spanish Festoon is flying very early this year. Most sources say that it can be seen from April onward, although the excellent Collins Butterfly Guide, which says this butterfly flies from late March to May, also points out that it has been recorded in February. With the Climate Crisis making the weather a lot warmer, and leading to droughts and the very real danger of forest fires in Portugal, butterflies and other species of flora and fauna are directly affected by changes in the weather. 
The Birthwort species are poisonous plants that are dangerous for humans to consume, because poisoning from these plants can lead to kidney failure. These plants were once used to cause uterine contractions, hence the name “birthwort,” but their usage as a medicinal herb has mainly been abandoned due to the dangers of the toxins these plants contain. For the caterpillars of the Spanish Festoon, as is the case with the larvae of many butterflies that have poisonous food-plants, the poisons in the plant become a form of defence for the caterpillars. Because they become toxic too, any predators that try eating them are likely to get very sick. The European Birthwort (A. clematitis) is the species I was expecting to find, so I was pleasantly surprised to find the Round-leaved Birthwort was the local species. Birthworts tend to be straggling plants that need other vegetation or support to climb over. The Aristolochia species have unusual tube-shaped or pipe-shaped flowers, and one species, the Dutchman’s Pipe, which has very large and attractive blooms, is grown for ornamental purposes.

Sunday, 16 February 2020

The Angel of Death

The Angel of Death
Angel of Death (Azrael) by Evelyn De Morgan (Public Domain)
It was in the not too distant future when the nightmare scenario devastated the western world, and led to the final collapse of life as we know it. A 100% lethal mutated virus had been spawned in the labs of insane scientists. There was no known cure for the Angel of Death, which spread by contact, as well as via the air and in water supplies. An even more insane subversive group within the ranks of the the evil germ-warfare-mongers had infiltrated to the highest echelons above top secret, and in a final doomsday effort had unleashed the killer virus upon an unsuspecting world. Death came to everyone infected with it within weeks, and there were no recorded cases of survival. 
Throughout the entire civilised world, throughout all the teeming cities, and even to the smaller towns and villages of the whole globe, the silence of the fatal germ had come. Only humans were infected, so once again the world of animals and plants had a chance, for it appeared that the reign of mankind was finally over for good.
Ten years had elapsed and the passage of time had brought many changes. In once Great Britain, the cities with all their accompanying industrial and urban sprawl had reverted back to a more natural environment that was gradually and not so gradually displacing what humans had created. Rooftop gardens of small trees, brambles, briars, and assorted weeds and grasses greeted the sky, and the hungry flocks of sparrows, starlings, pigeons and finches. Barn owls bred again in large numbers and circled the dark night skies, seeking out their choice from the teeming rodent hordes that had multiplied without check feeding on the vast quantities of stored foods in shops and warehouses.
Branches of trees poked skywards through crumbling and ruined buildings. Roads, streets, pedestrian precincts, shopping malls, and even the once mighty motorways lay cracked by the ever-advancing frontline troops of armies of the vegetable kingdom.  Grass grew waist-high in fields, parks and open spaces, and masses of wildflowers adorned these meadows providing a feast for the butterflies, bees and other pollinators. Mongrel dogs prowled and hunted in packs. Hawks and other birds of prey had a field day with all the vast numbers of small birds, and rats and mice, now to be hunted.
The seas and lakes, rivers, streams, ponds, and other waterways and wetlands had once again come into their own and teamed with fish and other aquatic life, which in turn supported huge breeding colonies of waders, herons, ducks, and other water birds. Massive patches of brambles, nettles, briars and assorted scrub in sprawling growth reclaimed the once cultivated and civilized land. Broken human skeletons lay covered or partially exposed to the elements, or rotting away in the empty rooms where they fell. Forests too were starting to reclaim the land in an effort to return to days gone by.  Foreign flora and fauna vied with natives for space in the battle for survival under the laws of Mother Nature.
In the rest of the world, the picture was much the same, and the land so devastated by mankind’s short and tyrannical reign of destruction was being fast taken back by natural forces as the balance became again restored to the Earth.
The end of mankind had not, however, arrived for small pockets of survivors continued to live in their ancient tribal ways in the mountains and jungles of South America, Asia, and deep in the rainforests of Africa. These tribes had survived, because although they were aware of the civilised world they had chosen to live in isolation from it, shunning all contact, and so preserving their ancient culture and traditions.
So the planet was once more open for colonization as those tribal peoples grew in numbers, and an almost Garden of Eden type situation presented itself with the ruined technological cities and factories of destruction still there to maybe be discovered like the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil. 
Only the tribal elders really understood the dangers that lay ahead, but as to whether they were able to prevent enquiring minds from prying into these secrets only time would tell. If the circle was to run its course, several thousand years more had to elapse, but for the time being all was well upon the Garden of Earth.

Footnote: I wrote this depressing story many years ago but had not done anything with it until now. I am hoping it remains just a story! With the Corona Virus or Covid 19 virus in the news, it seemed a good time to publish it though.

Saturday, 15 February 2020

Where Does All The Plastic Go? Gets Media Coverage

My protest song about plastic pollution entitled Where Does All The Plastic Go? has had some great media coverage, but it needs a lot more. The song has been featured in a national newspaper in Portugal and in a recent book from Italy. It would be wonderful if the British mainstream media would report on it too.
The Portugal News
Last September, The Portugal News included an article about my song after I was interviewed by Kim Schiffmann, who is one of the newspaper’s writers. There was a photo of me on the front page too and a caption which said: “Singing Against Pollution p11.” The Portugal News is a national newspaper in the English language and read by many an expat.
My song also received airplay in Portugal on Roque Duarte’s Sonic Fine Cut show on (Eclectic Sounds Radio) and Nação Sónica. The video for Where Does All The Plastic Go? had been made in Portugal by Filipe Rafael, and the song is included in my album Songs of The Now and Then, which is available as an environmentally packaged CD with a recycled egg box CD tray, or as a digital release on bandcamp. On Facebook, the video has had over 19,000 views. 
Where Does All The Plastic Go? is also available for streaming and downloads at Reverb Nation. 
SPAM: Stop Plastica A Mare and Ocean Aid
Meanwhile in Italy, Where Does All The Plastic Go? Has received some wonderful publicity thanks to Filippo Solibello, who is a top radio presenter and author there. He has included an entire chapter about me and my song in his book SPAM Stop Plastic A Mare, which he has been touring extensively to promote. He even got a copy of his book to Pope Francis.
Filippo has been showing the video of my song to audiences in Italy and also spreading word about my idea for an Ocean Aid concert to raise awareness on an international level, and as a fund-raiser for charitable organisations that are working to save the oceans and marine life in them. I think some very famous names would want to be involved if a massive concert could be organised, like Band Aid and Live Aid but this time it would be Ocean Aid. Many stars from the world of music, such as Ed Sheeran, Mick Jagger, Kanye West, Cerys Matthews, Chrissie Hynde and Brian May, have spoken out about plastic pollution but I think I am leading the way when it comes to songs on the subject. 
Music Interview Magazine
I am very grateful to Music Interview Magazine for publishing an in depth interview with me in which I explain about how I became alarmed about the ongoing threat from plastic. I mention David de Rothschild and how he sailed The Plastiki across the Pacific Ocean back in 2010. This was when I started following his work as an environmentalist and learned how bad the plastic pollution problem really is. Sadly, in the years that have gone by since then the size of the problem has multiplied on a mind-boggling scale, and we really do need to find ways of stopping it getting any worse and of getting as much of the plastic that is out there in the oceans out of them. Plastic is now everywhere. As microplastics it is in the air, soil and water. The environment worldwide has been contaminated by plastic pollution and plastic has entered the food chain which goes right up to us. This is why I sing: “Plastic kills the turtles and is eaten by the fish, plastic’s in the food chain and the dinner on your dish!” Please help me spread the word about my song and idea for an Ocean Aid concert. Plastic pollution affects everybody!

Monday, 11 November 2019

My Protest Songs and Songs About the Environment

With the ongoing Climate Crisis and serious threat of extinction for so many species I have been writing and performing protests songs and songs that draw attention to the environment and to dangers to the wildlife of the world. I have four songs like this on my recent album Songs of the Now and Then, which is released in CD format and as a digital release on bandcamp, and was produced by Jayce Lewis. The CD is environmentally friendly because the tray and packaging is made from recycled eggbox. But now let’s take a look at the songs!
Where Does All The Plastic Go?
Where Does All The Plastic Go? Started life as a poem but I decided to make a song out of it because no one else in the world of music was singing about this problem that affects us all. There is a video made by Filipe Rafael and filmed in Portugal, and this video has had over 19,200 views on Facebook.

My song has been featured in The Portugal News and I was featured on the front page with a caption: “Singing Against Pollution P11.” It has also been featured in a book by Italian radio host and author Filippo Solibello.
In SPAM Stop Plastic A Mare, the author has given a 4-page chapter to it entitled Where Does All The Plastic Go? Filippo has been promoting his book and my song all over Italy and managed to get a copy to Pope Francis. He is also spreading the word about my idea for an Ocean Aid concert, like Band Aid and Live Aid but this time to raise awareness of the crisis at sea caused by plastic pollution , as well as overfishing and other threats to life in the oceans.
I am hoping that this concert will happen and will attract not only big sponsors but very big name bands and singers, who will be willing to take part. Money raised can be distributed to charities helping the oceans. Which ones is yet to be decided on but there are many. Streaming and free downloads of Where Does All The Plastic Go? are available at Reverb Nation.

The Nightingale
The Nightingale, is a song that not only talks about the threat of habitat destruction that is causing a serious decline in this iconic songbird , but talks about the problems caused by development schemes all over the UK and elsewhere. Land-grabs of green belt and forested areas are causing an incredible amount of destruction of the homes of a vast number of species of wildlife. It makes reference too, to the ongoing felling of trees in cities and towns. The song starts with the lyrics: “You’ll never hear a nightingale if their homes are no longer there, destroyed by a developer who doesn’t really care, despite their claims otherwise about biodiversity, ripped up hedges and bulldozed land’s the reality I see.” The Nightingale features vocals from well-known Welsh poet Mab Jones on the choruses. This song is very topical due to all the protests that continue in the UK, where people are trying their best to stop the destruction of the forests and countryside. As I write, there are ongoing demonstrations to Stop HS2, but many more protests are taking place to save the wild places of Britain.
Citizen of Earth
Citizen Of Earth is actually an old song of mine that has been brought up to date with a new recording. I have been aware of the problems the world faces for a long time but everything has got so much worse. This is why I am making protest songs my focus. Citizen of Earth makes reference to the cult TV series The Prisoner, which starred Patrick McGoohan as Number Six. It talks about social unrest and about how people are trapped in a system that is similar in many ways to the Roman Empire. “The Roman Empire was much like today, Patricians and Plebeians and social decay, until the fires burned it all away, the ghost of Nero’s still fiddling. Citizen of Earth has been played on Roque Duarte’s show on the radio in Portugal and has inspired two very different videos. One was made by Ludgero Corvo and the other is an animation by Simon C. Watch them both and see which one you like best!

Butterfly In My Beard

Butterfly In My Beard is the most lighthearted of these songs, though it still raises awareness about wildlife, in this case it is talking about butterflies. I rear these insects and the verses of my song refer to real-life incidents. I have had Monarch butterflies on my beard. The second verse goes: “They called me the Bugman on the news one time…. they called me the Bugman on the news, a Hissing Cockroach on my head got plenty of views…” These lyrics are about the time I was in the South Wales Echo in an article about how I kept exotic insects. 
When I perform the song live I get the audience to join in by “making butterflies” with their linked outstretched hands and by giving me a “yeah” at the right places. I am hoping to audition this song in front of the judges of Britain’s Got Talent.
Butterfly In My Beard at CamonesCinebar in Lisbon

Monday, 28 October 2019

Grass growing after the rain is a help to some butterfly species

After the rains in Portugal

New grass blades - Photo: Steve Andrews

Drought-stricken Portugal has at last had the autumn rains arrive. The land is swiftly going green again. One type of plant that quickly recovers and shoots from dormant seeds is any one of most species of grass. This is wonderful news for many butterfly species that need grass for their caterpillars.
Speckled Wood - Photo: Steve Andrews

The Speckled Wood (Pararge aegeria)  and Meadow Brown (Maniola jurtina) are two widely distributed butterflies that have larvae that feed on grass. Until recently female butterflies were presented with a major problem because most grass had shrivelled and died in the months of hot sunshine and little or no rain. Much of the countryside had become brown and dusty, and what vegetation that survived was tinder dry and in poor condition. However, millions of seeds have been left to germinate after being activated by the next showers of rain. It always amazes me to see how quickly the greenery returns to barren and dried up land that looks more like a desert. Not just grass but countless weeds and wildflowers swiftly cover the ground with their first shoots and seedling leaves. I delight in seeing so much going green again.
Brown ground going green again - Photo: Steve Andrews

Other butterflies

The Small Copper (Lycaena phlaeas) is another butterfly that was sure to have problems in a drought and that I had seen here. Weeks ago there were many specimens of this pretty little butterfly flying on the scrubland and along paths through the woodland. The vegetation under the trees were all dead and brown and I couldn’t find any leaves of the food-plants this butterfly needs. Species of Sorrel and Dock (Rumex spp.) are the plants the female Small Copper must find to lay her eggs on. Sadly, where I live, as far as I could see, none of them were still growing and what was left was either underground or as seeds. I really don’t know what this butterfly does in such conditions and there are no Small Coppers still about here to take advantage of any new growth. If they have somehow survived I will find out next year. 
Small Copper - Photo: Steve Andrews

Two more butterflies already returning to the countryside here are Clouded Yellow (Colias croceus) and Small White (Pieris rapae). The former needs species of clovers and trefoils, and the latter looks for plants in the Cabbage family but can also use species of Mustard that grow wild. There should be plenty of food-plants for these butterflies in a while, once the seedlings have germinated and started growing again. This is what is happening here now. All plants that have been laying dormant underground as rootstocks or as seeds on the surface are being activated by the so welcome rains. It is wonderful news too, knowing that more rain is forecast for the rest of the week ahead. We need it!
Because butterfly females lay hundreds of eggs it gives them a far better chance of survival but it is still a mystery to me, as to how they get through periods when there are no green plants of the types they need to be found.
The Clouded Yellow