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Wednesday, 16 December 2015

OMG, They made a new Independence Day movie!

I LOVED this movie in the 90's, and I had no idea they were even going to make a new one, let alone that they have already done it, and created a trailer, for a summer (June) 2016 release.  Wow!

The original movie was EPIC!  It had Bill Pullman as the president of the United States of America, Jeff Golblum as a seemingly insignificant guy who wanted to save the planet - and he literally got to do just that, on a hugely epic scale!  The original movie had awe, and huge spacecraft looming over our skylines, like the characters in the movie, you gaped open-mouthed at the marvels of a far superior alien race arriving to annihilate you.  

Well they're back, and so are key members of the original cast, including Bill Pullman, Jeff Goldblum, and the guy who played his father (Judd Hirsch I think, loved his character).  I haven't seen Will Smith yet, but it appears Liam Hemsworth is in this movie, possibly playing a similar role to Will Smith's daredevil pilot, and perhaps 'a little eager to whoop ET's ass!'

From the trailer below, the new Independence Day: Resurgence looks just as fantastically epic as the original, made 20 years later, and I can't wait to see it!

Monday, 7 December 2015

New Music Monday... Train - Shake Up Christmas

Continuing my New Music Monday feature, where I introduce you songs and music artists you may not have stumbled across before, I'm starting a new theme for the month of December: festive songs for the season!  I'm picking some of my favourite tracks that don't get a lot of airtime on UK radio, even though they were released quite recently in comparison to some of our old favourites.  I really like it when an artist chooses to create a whole new song for Christmas instead of covering an old song we already know and love that's been covered about a million times.  It's great to hear something new that evokes the feeling of Christmas today.

And this week I'm featuring Train, an American rock band with Shake Up Christmas.  A fun catchy song, with a fun little story in the video, showing kindness and goodwill in a modern way, though still including Santa Claus.  Enjoy!  

If you enjoyed watching the above video and would like to see more, you might like to know that Train have a new Christmas album out, exclusively on Amazon, called Christmas In Tahoe.  On it they include this single which was originally released in 2010, covers of favourite Christmas songs, (including a cover of Slade's Merry Christmas Everybody), as well as their brand new song, Christmas Island.  

Have fun getting in the festive spirit, and I'll bring you some more festive cheer next week!

Saturday, 5 December 2015

A Life Full Of Trees

Growing up in Lancashire in the North West of England, I was surrounded by trees.  Even though I lived in a city, many trees grew in and overhanging my school grounds, trees lined many streets, filled city parks, and one even grew directly outside my house.  A big old tree, a maple I think.  I remember as a child standing in the middle of my street, looking up into the beautiful light green canopy that shaded my road, and throwing a tennis ball straight up through it, to slowly come back down and let me catch it.  I couldn’t reach the top myself, but somehow, sending my ball up there and back, it was as if I could touch a little piece of magic. 

Trees form a huge part of our childhood, somehow they naturally feel safe to us, as if they are tall, wise guardians watching over us.  Instinctively we want to reach out a hand and touch their bark.  It’s tactile and secure, encouraging us to climb and explore.  In my early years at school, I remember taking a piece of paper, placing it against a tree trunk, rubbing a crayon over it, creating the texture of the bark directly onto my paper. 

My earliest natural toys came from trees, the helicopter like sycamore seed that twirls and spirals its way to the ground, as if designed to capture the attention of a child, to pick it up and twirl and twirl, transporting it to a new destination - a natural way to spread its seeds.  A pine cone also captures a child’s imagination, another tactile delight to behold.  I remember running my fingers over it’s strange shape, taking it home to put on my windowsill, then watching it open and close depending on the weather, displaying the humidity level like a natural hygrometer. 

And of course there were the conker games the boys would play on the way to school, at breaktimes, playtimes, hometimes, and any time they could get away with it when the teacher wasn’t looking! 

On the trip to and from school I would love crunching the crisp autumn leaves under my feet, giving me an enormous amount of pleasure, and a huge smile across my face.  A happy and carefree feeling is the gift nature gives to you. 

Trees are with us, right through our school years and beyond into adulthood.  They teach us about the world around us, help us learn how to read, to write, and to draw.  It wasn’t until a teacher wrote in my exercise book “Don’t Waste Trees!” on a half page I’d skipped to start at the top of the next page that I really thought about where my paper comes from.  It is in fact, from trees.  If you are indoors as you read this, I imagine you will be surrounded by the products of trees.  For example, I am using a laptop sat on a wooden folding desk; I have a paper calendar hanging on the wall, and a paper diary next to me with all my To Do List items on it.  There are paperback novels on my shelves, hardback reference books on a taller bookcase, and magazines I’ve recently enjoyed reading strewn to my side.  I also have photos in frames printed on photo paper, a wooden door, and wooden floorboards under my carpet.  In many buildings heat is produced by coal and log fires, staving off the cold and keeping us warm.  Trees really do provide our shelter, our education, images of our loved ones held dear to us, and fire off our imaginations in novels and fantasy art images on calendars. 

Within the pages of C.S. Lewis’s, The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe, we really do discover a whole new world.  Lucy discovers a huge old wardrobe in a spare room, within it are thick fur coats to wade through, and through the back… paradise.  And what does paradise look like?  A beautiful wood forest covered in snow.

Trees contain our history, our memories are closely interlinked with them.  And because trees can live to hundreds of years old, many have far greater histories attached to them, farther back before we were even born.  Some have witnessed epic battles, historic town meetings that took place beneath their boughs before townspeople thought to build town halls.  Many years of history are wrapped up in trees, hidden within their many layers of age, wisdom and memories. 

And yet trees, that are far older than any historic listed building, are not listed.  There is no register or listing that protects ancient trees from being uprooted and demolished.  Surely we should protect trees as much as they have protected us?  They have looked after humankind for hundreds of years, sheltered us, educated us, and kept us warm from the cold outside.  Surely we can take a small step to thank them for all they have done for us, by protecting them from damage and destruction by us, preserving them for future generations to come, so that they too can learn the history and the beauty that lies within these ancient trees. 

The Woodland Trust is attempting to do just that, to create a national register of important trees, to give them the same protection as historic listed buildings.  Please show your support by sending a short message through the Woodland Trust’s Very Important Trees page.  Together, we can make a difference.  Because life’s better with trees.

Photo Credits:  Images used with Flickr Creative Commons License.  Image 1 by Peter O'Connor, Image 2 by Lordspudz, Image 3 by Matei Domnita.

Monday, 30 November 2015

New Music Monday... 2CELLOS - They Don't Care About Us

I'm introducing a new feature to my blog, New Music Monday, to introduce you to songs and music artists you may not have stumbled across before or paid too much attention to.  And if you have heard of them before, then I hope you stay awhile and enjoy them.  I aim to cover various musical genres, in an attempt to expand my own repertoire of musical tastes, and hopefully introduce you to some new and exciting music!


This week it's 2CELLOS, a Croatian duo, consisting of Luka Šulić and Stjepan Hauser, who play mainly instrumental versions of popular rock, pop and classical pieces on their two cellos.  Considering they play classical instruments, and are both classically trained, you would think they would be very formal and stuffy on stage.  This is completely not the case, as you will see in the video below, they give their all to the music and the performance, almost as if acting out the piece.  They play passionately, and what I love most about them, is they play pieces we are familiar with, and they play rocky versions of them.  And yeah, I guess it doesn't hurt that they are young and good looking too!


2CELLOS - They Don't Care About Us (Michael Jackson cover)
Youtube video
I thoroughly enjoyed this song, and I have loved everything I've heard from them.  I can't wait to hear more.  If after watching the video above you want to hear more, you can check out their other videos on Youtube, their third album Celloverse is available worldwide, and they have just announced new Tour Dates in the USA and Canada, with 41 shows!

Wednesday, 18 November 2015

Discover A Life Filled With Passion & Joy

"The world is a delicious and gorgeous place created for us to explore, enjoy, and protect.  I will seek out the lessons in every experience, and as I grow, I will have more to offer in return."
These are the words of wisdom I discovered in Guild Wars 2, the MMORPG (Massively Multiplayer Online Roleplaying Game) I recently downloaded and started playing.  I love fantasy or sci-fi online games that are free to play, and have just discovered Guild Wars 2 is now free.  They have put a lot of effort into making your character feel unique and have their own personal story running through the game, by giving you character choices at the beginning like the one quoted above.  

I think these words ring very true to the attitude and beliefs I would like to encourage in my own life.  A feeling of enthusiasm and excitement at discovering the beauty and the wonder of the world around me.  Sometimes we get a little bogged down with the mundane things we have to do, and can end up stomping around with our eyes down on a grey pavement, and forgetting to look up and take in the little miracles of the world all around us.  Every moment of our lives is different, the weather changes, hence the light is different on the familiar scenes around us.  There will be unique birds singing, wildlife and nature subtly change, so that no moment is ever exactly the same.  We just have to look up and see them.  

I also want to explore and discover new things, try out new hobbies, find new challenges, and further my skills.  Pushing myself to really be the best I can be.  I won't enjoy everything I try, but I am sure I will make some exciting discoveries that will stir my passion, and lead me on a new path in life, that I wouldn't have discovered, if I hadn't first tried something new.  

I hope you find something exciting and beautiful just waiting to be discovered, perhaps a new street you haven't walked down, a garden or park you've not yet visited, the stirrings of your imagination between the pages of a new book, the stroke of a pencil you never knew you could make, or the feel of wet clay between your fingers.  Whatever you discover, I hope it stirs your heart with passion, and fills your life with joy.  

Image Credit:  Image cropped from a screenshot of Guild Wars 2's beautiful scenery during actual gameplay.

Saturday, 14 November 2015

Let's Have Some Fun and Save the Planet

Would you like to enjoy live music, get a little exercise, and hear inspirational words to help save the planet?  Knowing that you would be making a difference to woods and trees, and attempting to reverse Climate Change at the same time?  Well you can, because the People's March for Woods and Trees will enable you to do just that!

There are over 2000 events taking place across our whole planet next weekend, on the 28th and 29th November 2015.  In the UK, they will be taking place in all the capital cities, as well as many smaller events dotted across the country.  I've listed the main city events below, but if you would like to attend a smaller event closer to you, you can find them on the Global Climate March Event Finder (as well as those across the planet too - just type in your country, city, or zip / post code for your area).

Climate Change

It's all in aid of drawing attention to the importance of Climate Change, the damage it is doing to our planet, and to bring it to the attention of our Global World Leaders who will be deciding what action will be taken on the next global climate deal, which they will be negotiating in Paris on Monday 30th November.  

These days climate change is having a much bigger impact on the world.  Instead of the scientists just predicting it, we can see the changes greenhouse gases are having on the planet.  The rising temperatures of global warming are creating freak weather patterns, causing extended heat waves, snow in countries not used to having it (such as Egypt), and violent storms.  

These weather patterns are effecting our seasons, making them more erratic, slower to start, and causing confusion to the plants and animals of this planet.  In my own garden this year, I have witnessed shrubs that should have been shedding their leaves, instead they are flowering in October and November, confused by the milder weather we have been having.  October is the month when weather normally turns drastically colder in the UK, causing trees to shed their leaves.  This year, insects have been flying around when they should be hidden away.  Small animals that normally hibernate at this time of the year, like our garden Hedgehog, are still active when they should be sleeping through winter.

This change in the timing of natural events can cause a loss of synchrony, so species that rely on each other, are now out of step with one another.  Some animals will do much better, whilst others will struggle, breaking up the natural balance between the two.  We are also more at risk of having non-native invasive species, who are not meant to be in our country, taking over and driving out native species, due to a changed weather climate that ordinarily would not allow them to thrive here.  This is how our native plants and animals who are quite common now, can become endangered and possibly extinct in the future.

Woods and Trees can really help to alleviate this problem.  With trees storing carbon, they help reduce greenhouse gas emissions which are changing our climate.  The more trees the better.  Trees and woodland also ease problems with flooding, they drink up water through their roots, which also helps hold waterlogged land together, preventing landslides during periods of heavy rain (which we seem to be having rather a lot of in England at the moment!).  Trees can also provide a renewable source of winter fuel, reducing the need for fossil fuels which are adding to the problem.

The time to act on Climate Change is now.  Many people believe we are almost at the point of no return, with scientists discovering new data which suggests sea levels could rise 10 times faster than previously predicted.  If emissions aren't cut, they believe "multi-meter sea-level rise would become practically unavoidable.  Social disruption and economic consequences of such large sea-level rise could be devastating.  It is not difficult to imagine that conflicts arising from forced migrations and economic collapse might make the planet ungovernable, threatening the fabric of civilization."

This makes me think of my own island that I live on, England.  After the Ice Age, sea levels rose that cut off England from mainland Europe.  If the ice continues to thaw now due to global warming, will sea levels rise above my country?  Will I effectively be homeless?  I hadn't thought of my own country possibly being submerged underwater, and my country's population (myself included) becoming refugees seeking higher ground on which to live.  You can well imagine that on any remaining high ground, the people already occupying that land would not be so keen to accept migrants.  Suddenly life in the movie Waterworld doesn't seem quite so much science fiction, as potentially science fact.  

Marching for Change
I believe we need to show our world leaders not only that we care, but that they must take action now, or this planet will look very different in the near future, a change which may well become irreversible.   

The major events taking place in the capital cities of the United Kingdom are:

Belfast, Northern Ireland
Sunday 29th November 2015
A rally with live music and speakers hosted by Niall Bakewell from Friends of the Earth.
Cardiff, Wales
Saturday 28th November 2015
A bike ride and rally with speakers and live entertainment hosted by Delphine.  You can choose to take part in either the bike ride, or rally, or both!
Edinburgh, Scotland
Saturday 28th November 2015
You are invited to wear your brightest colours for an inspirational rally with speakers and live music at the iconic Ross Bandstand, hosted by Rea Cris.
London, England
Sunday 29th November 2015
The People's March for Climate, Justice and Jobs will be marching right up to Westminster, and culminating with a rally with live music and a range of speakers, hosted by Fatima Ibrahim.
The London People's March will be putting on coaches from various points all over the country to help supporters get there.  Check out The Climate Justice website for more informaiton.
If you'd like to take part on one of the major events above, you can sign-up on The Woodland Trust People's March page, where they can keep you up-to-date with the latest news on routes and meet-up places, and if you meet up with them on the day of the march, they will even give you a biodegradable Woodland Trust poncho and a placard to carry!

If you'd prefer to take part in a smaller event closer to you, or in your own country, don't forget you can check out the Global Climate March Event Finder, which has all the events in all countries, with details of what will be happening at each event.  

Some of the other events around the UK will include fancy dress in Southport, poets, circus acts and inspirational speakers in Canterbury, as well as many candlelit vigils around the country with words of inspiration and music to shine a light of hope for our planet.

Around the world people will be showing their world leaders they care too, in New York City, USA, they will be holding their first annual NYC World Climate Festival / March where people will be marching to Times Square with singing, dancing, talking, listening and laughing.  There will also be people marching in Canberra, Australia, where they will be having music, speeches and stalls in a family friendly Community Festival of Solutions, inspiring people towards action and change.

Whatever you do, make sure you go out there and have fun, show you care about the future of our planet, and ultimately, all life on Earth.

Photo Credits:  Images used under the Flickr Creative Commons License:  Image 1 by Annette Bernhardt, Image 2 by Susan Melkisethian, Image 3 © Peter Bowden, Image 4 by Benjamin Lyons, Image 5 by The Weekly Bull, Image 6 by Jason, Image 7 by Stephen Melkisethian, Image 8 by M Larsen-Daw/WTML, Image 9 & 10 by TCDavis, Image 11 by canopic.

Wednesday, 4 November 2015

Feeling Inspired To Keep A Sketchbook

After watching Scott Robertson's Youtube video Sketchbooks (embedded below) where he shows off sketchbook pages, and then a few quick sketches of his own at the end, are really inspiring me to start regular sketching again.

I used to sketch regularly in my breaks at work, borrowing a little paper from the printer drawer (copier paper is beautifully white and a great clean surface to have fun sketching on), and I would sketch something new every day.  I was lucky at the time, I got a 20 minute break in the morning and afternoon, by the end of the week I had a sheet full of pencil sketches!  

It was great freeform drawing, not using any reference images, just doodling freehand for a little relaxation and escapism, which really took my mind off work.  Focusing on the pencil line and creating something fun, I felt transported to another world.  It was also interesting to look back on what I'd doodled and see what I'd been thinking about over the course of each week, which I dated too.  

I'd like to try some of the mechs Scott sketches above too, and I love his idea for making a basic rough shape with a grey marker pen, then sketching in details over the top with a black fineliner pen.  I tend to sketch in a 2B pencil, but I could try using the side of the pencil to lightly block in a rough shape, and then use the point to define the details afterwards.  

I think this will be fun to pick up again now, and a great way to relax and take the stress out of my day.  It's bound to improve my art skills too!

Wednesday, 28 October 2015

Birthday Wisdom When You're Getting A Little Long In The Tooth

Sometimes wisdom can come from the most unlikely of places.  I was making a new appointment with my dentist today, when he told me it would be just after my next birthday.
"Oh, I'll be another year older." I said.
To which he replied, "It's better than the alternative!" 
It's funny but I've never thought of it like that before.  When I was younger I was excited about each new birthday coming up, I had my whole life ahead of me!  But these days, I've been seeing every approaching birthday as just another year older.  I haven't been geting as excited about my age each year as I did in my teens and my twenties.  But now that I've heard this unexpected piece of wisdom from my dentist, I'm a little more excited to be alive!

The only alternative to living (and aging), is dying.  And I don't want to do that.  So now I'm going to think of my birthday as a time to celebrate another year of crazy things I get the chance to do - because I'm lucky enough to be alive to do them!

Photo Credit:  Image by John Kay - Flickr Creative Commons License

Sunday, 11 October 2015

Try Something New for Woods & Trees

My blog is all about trying something new and doing something for the first time.  Why not be more adventurous for a good cause?  If you only have 5 minutes, why not write to your local MP and make a difference for Woods and Trees?  It's easy as the Woodland Trust will do all the research for you and find out who your local MP is, all you have to do is fill in a quick form on their page, and they will send it for you.  

A Brand New Group

The UK Government are trying something new too - they're setting up a brand new All-Party Parliamentary Group to stand up for ancient woodland and veteran trees.  They'll be meeting up throughout the year to raise awareness of the threats to ancient woodland and their flora and fauna (which you can learn more about - and see their cute pictures - in my Flora & Fauna blog post).  The first ever meeting of this group will be on 20th October 2015, when they will elect officers, receive a presentation expert woodland ecologists, discuss the best ways to better value and protect our natural habitat, and speak up for us in Parliament.  

The more MP's that attend, the greater the chance this new parliamentary group will be a success, raising issues in parliament for years to come.  We can help by sending a message online to our local MP's asking them to attend, let them know we care about our woods and trees and want to preserve them, and the nature that inhabits them, for years to come.  


And with The Woodland Trust doing the hard work for us, all we have to do is fill in a short message form on their website, for them to look up our local MP and send the message for us.  Thank you, Woodland Trust.

Photo Credit:  Jeffrey James Pacres, Creative Commons license.

Friday, 18 September 2015

NaNoWriMo 2015 - Story Ideas

It's September and I'm starting to think about Nanowrimo 2015, that exciting and crazy month in November, where every year I attempt to write a 50,000 word first draft of a novel.  I think September is the earliest I've thought of my Nanowrimo novel, normally it's some time in October I start to think of it.  But I'd really like to give myself a good go of it this year.  Perhaps this year will be the first one I actually win Nanowrimo?

Beckie / Flickr Creative Commons License

Feeling inspired by my Art Challenge earlier this year, where I created a fantasy image based on an idea of a British secret service covertly fighting alien threats in the Victorian era.  How would Victorian technology fare against alien technology?  Aliens, alien abduction, experimentation on humans, shapeshifting aliens, alien robots and monsters attacking Earth and it's inhabitants would all seem very alien and very strange to 19th century humans.  

My Artwork: 'Ancient vs Futuristic' - Colour Pencil on A5 Sketchbook paper

Although they could use Victorian guns, probably flintlock pistols and rifles, and gunpowder (most enemies don't fare too well against large explosions), I think they would still struggle against alien enemies.  Perhaps they could make use of the occult knowledge that was so popular in Victorian times.  Consulting psychics to determine when and where any alien encounters or threats had or would happen.  They could also seek out witches and mages to do battle against alien enemies, summoning spirits and werewolves to do their bidding.  This may make the battleground a more even one.

The Ouija Board
Lemurian Grove / Flickr Creative Commons License

Their communication abilities would be very archaic compared to today, before telephones of any kind were invented, not even radio communication existed.  Letters would have been posted, and if something could not wait 24 hours for first class post, messengers could be sent, like errand boys (or grown men if they could not trust them) to deliver paper messages that were urgent.  Members of the secret service could turn up at an agent's house, or meet them at a pre-arranged time, such as at a park.  They could pass paper messages that would need burning after reading.  Or they could have some sort of code.  Perhaps Braille? They could have secretly invented before it was released to the public to be used by the blind, it could have been used as a discreet code around the edge of postcards or greeting cards to be sent through the post to secret service agents.

Bible inside cover
lokarta / Flickr Creative Commons License

Steampunk technology could have been invented in a similar way, to look like Edwardian technology, that was secretly invented earlier than was released to the general public.  What kind of Steampunk technology could they have had?  Electricity hadn't been invented, so it would have to be something running from a steam engine, or cogs like a wind-up clock mechanism, which could be very small like a pocket watch, or something very large like Big Ben.

Compass Study
Calsidyrose / Flickr Creative Commons license

Perhaps I can spend these 2 months leading up to Nanowrimo researching Victorian technology and what occult and superstitious beliefs they had, to give me plenty of ideas to go through in November.  I find I struggle when I don't know what is going to happen next in my novel, I've tried winging it with absolutely no prep at all, and I've tried with lots of ideas seemingly carefully planned, and then run out of steam.  

This year I hope to be more prepared with ideas I can pick at random, and make use of the Mythic Game Master Emulator, originally designed to emulate the Game Master (or Dungeon Master, if playing Dungeons & Dragons), and allow a group of friends to roleplay without a GM (or DM), or to play a roleplaying game solo, without any other players (which is what I originally bought it for).  But when you read into the Mythic Game Master Emulator ebook, you learn that it can actually be used for writing a novel, ideal if you up against a deadline (such as Nanowrimo), and don't know what to throw at your characters next.  I'm hoping it will help me keep pressing on with my novel, when I'm stuck and feel I don't know where to go next.  It should also help it feel like a game too, making it more fun!  I might even try having a list of ideas or events, up to 100, that I can then throw a 100 sided dice (1d100 or 2d10's), to pick something at random to put my characters through.  I love challenging my characters, and seeing what they can survive through!

Anyone else thinking of their Nanowrimo 2015 novel?  I'd love to hear what you're working on and any tips you have for ploughing on through 50,000 words in 30 days!

Tuesday, 15 September 2015

Ancient Woodland Flora & Fauna

I’ve always loved anything miniature and small.  As a child, I loved reading The Borrowers by Mary Norton.  I was intrigued by Arrietty, the young daughter of a family of Borrowers, tiny people who lived under the floor.  When they emigrated in The Borrowers Afield I loved exploring the great outdoors through her eyes, discovering giant grass and hedges to climb, beautiful flowers, giant buzzing bees, mice and frogs.  And so began my love of nature.  I used to imagine my miniature self, running barefoot across the moss in my garden.  This glossy green carpet is perhaps one of the most ancient of plants, having no roots or stems, nor true leaves.  Many varieties of moss thrive in the ancient woodland of the British Isles.  It grows over rocks and soil, tree bark and stone walls. 

Lichens also grow on the bark of trees, and are similar in that they have no roots, and absorb water all over their surface.  They need moist humid air within which to grow, and the best place to spot them is in damp ancient woodland.  Because they absorb water from the air around them, many varieties of lichens cannot survive near motorways or human habitation due to the pollutants in the air, such as sulphur dioxide and carbon monoxide, which dissolve in the water in the air that they drink.  In these areas only Pleurococcus, a microscopic alga that turns tree trunks a dirty green colour, seem able to survive.  In ancient woodland you see a much more varied and exciting variety of lichens, including Tree Lungwort (Lobaria pulmonaria), one of the largest lichens with large light green leaf shapes growing over tree trunks, whose presence is often an indicator of ancient woodland.

Ancient woodland is rare in that it has undisturbed, and very rich soil.  It has not been ploughed or turned over by man for centuries, if at all.  It often dates back to the last Ice Age, and in deciduous woodland, has been fed every year with the falling leaves in autumn.  Deciduous trees also enable the prolific growth of another key ancient woodland indicator species – the English Bluebell (Hyacinthoides non-scripta).  They flower and leaf early in the growing season, making the most of the available light before the tree canopy closes in late spring, giving a beautiful carpet of colour so typical of British woodland, and much loved pollen and nectar for our humble Bumblebees. 

Ferns are also well adapted to woodland, these shade loving group of plants are one of my favourite.  I love how each leaf gradually uncurls from the centre, extending out into beautiful light green fronds, it’s like unwrapping a present.  Large ancient trees in Britain harbour many beautiful little rare treasures, like the Golden Hoverfly (Callicera spinolae), large furry hoverflies that more closely resemble a honeybee, except that they have long black antennae that are white at the tips.  The adults are active in September and October, often feeding on nectar rich ivy as it is one plant which offers nectar and pollen at this time of the year.  Golden Hoverfly tend to lay their eggs in ancient trees that have been pollarded, where wet rot holes have often formed, or in the snags and complex branch structures of these old trees.

Perhaps the most elegant and beautiful creature of ancient woodland, is the Purple Emperor Butterfly (Apatura iris).  This Butterfly can appear black and white from some angles, but when the sunlight strikes the wings at just the right angle, a magnificent purple sheen is revealed.  This Butterfly spends most of its time up in the tree canopy feeding on aphid honeydew, although it’s rather unusual diet does bring it down in the early morning and again in the late afternoon, when it will feed on animal droppings, carrion, moisture from damp mud, and have even happily landed on human observers to feed on their sweat!

Another beautiful butterfly is the Silver-washed Fritillary (Argynnis paphia), a bright orange butterfly named after the silver streaks found underneath its wings.  This Fritillary is most often found in woodland where it’s larval food plant, the Common Dog-violet (Viola riviniana), grows.  As adults, they feed on aphid honeydew in the woodland canopy, but also their favourite nectar sources, the flowers of Bramble and Thistle.    The Silver-washed Fritillary is a strong flyer, hurtling along through the tree canopy searching for anything that might be food, and investigating anything remotely orange coloured in case it might be a potential mate.  Their courtship flight is the most spectacular of all though, with the paler orange female flying in a straight line, whilst the male continuously flies in loops all around her, before eventually landing on a convenient spot where the male showers her in scent scales.  How romantic!

Wood Ant

Important managers of ancient woodland are the rare and often overlooked are the Narrow Headed Ants (Formica exsecta), recognised by a deep notch at the back of their head.  Even though they are only 10mm long, they play an important role in helping to regenerate forests.  Certain plants are dependent on ants for distribution of their seeds.  For example, Small Cow Wheat (Melampyrum sylvaticum), produces seeds with a small sweet attachment which attracts the ants.  The ants carry the seeds to their nest, where they will consume the yummy food, before taking the seeds out of the nest and disposing of them somewhere new where they will germinate into new plants the following year.  Ants must have a sweet tooth too!

Narrow Headed Ants are also surprisingly green in their way of living.  Masters of eco architecture, they build large dome-shaped nests around a tussock of grass or some similar plant, which provides not only the foundation of the nest, but also heat as the vegetation decays within their nest.  They also build their nests asymmetrically, with the larger and flatter side facing south, so as to get the maximum heat from the sun on their nests.  The worker ants also go out sunbathing, before returning to the nest and using their now heated bodies to warm and help incubate the eggs.  They also thatch their roof with a covering of grass, heather and pine needles, insulating their home from the cold.  I guess when you’ve gone to so much trouble to make your home so nice, you can understand how wood ants can be very territorial, and Narrow Headed Ants are no exception.  They have been known to climb onto the backs of other ant species, and decapitate them from behind, literally biting their heads off!  Perhaps they’ve watched one too many zombie movies?

Wood Ant

If you’re looking for more scary creatures of the forest, there are a couple of rare bats, the Barbastelle Bat (Barbastella barbastellus) and Bechstein’s Bat (Myotis bechsteinii).  I think the Barbastelle Bat is probably the scarier looking of the two, being mostly black and pictured here in caves.  It’s kind of ironic to think that humans used to live in caves, and these days most of us tend to have a fear of Bats flapping around us, how did we ever manage to live in caves with them?  Surely we must have come across them in the past, or is that where our fear of them first came from?  Did we inadvertently spook them with a noise, or was it just their time to fly out, and we happened to be in the way when they went?

Barbastella barbastellus

Apparently, Bats roost in different locations at different times, depending on whether they just want somewhere to sleep for the day, a breeding roost, or a hibernation roost.  For breeding, they prefer higher treetops, just under the canopy, where the sun will keep the females and their babies warm.  Non-breeding adult females, and males, prefer hollows and damaged spots in older or dead trees to keep cool in for sleeping during the day.  But in winter, they need somewhere cooler, to allow their body temperatures to drop, preferably quiet where they won’t be disturbed, and somewhere with a consistent temperature.  Perhaps in the base of an old tree, but Bats would also find caves ideal for this.  Perhaps they would hibernate deep in caves, whereas prehistoric man would be nearer a cave’s entrance making small fires to keep warm.  Then come springtime, a whole swarm of Bats could come flying out, surprising and terrifying humans, who would have had no idea they were there!

I think the cutest creature of the UK’s forests has to be the Dormouse (Muscardinus avellanarius), a quick search on GoogleImages brings up many gorgeous pictures to melt your heart.  Dormice are so sweet, with tiny human-like hands, cute faces, golden brown fur, and a fluffy tail.  They spend most of their time sleeping, they sleep all day long, and hibernate up to seven months a year.  They wake up in April, and spend their nocturnal lives searching for food amongst the branches in the trees, often taking long detours and leaping from branch to branch rather than having to risk the danger of predators on the ground.  They tend to feed on flowers and pollen in the spring, fruit during the summer, and nuts in the autumn.  Their favourite food is hazelnuts and bramble, whose flowers and berries can sustain them for quite some time, but they can also eat aphids and caterpillars.  The trees really do hold all they need, even giving them nesting material, and hollows within which to build their nests close to the ground for winter hibernation.    

Over recent years, Dormice are in decline.  Because of their specialised diet, and because of their fear of crossing open ground, dormice are restricted to ancient woodland sites, they cannot cross open ground to colonise other sites when their woodland habitat is destroyed.  All the species I have mentioned today are especially adapted to ancient woodland, many are rare and threatened.  Amazingly, only 2% of the British Isles is covered in ancient woodland, and only half of it is in a semi-natural condition.  The other half has been planted with exotic and invasive species, such as conifers and rhododendron, spoiling the biodiversity and making it difficult or impossible for our native species to survive there.  These woodlands need careful management, with the maintenance of native species of flora and fauna, to bring the woods back to what was originally here in these woodlands.  We cannot bring back the species that are already extinct, but we can use what we’ve learned to protect the threatened species barely hanging on to our British countryside. 

The National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) is meant to protect special sites like these, to protect the ancient forests of Britain and its inhabitants from extinction.  But their wording has provided a huge loophole allowing any potential developers to bulldoze straight through the land.  This is what it says:

“Planning permission should be refused for development resulting in the loss or deterioration of irreplaceable habitats, including ancient woodland and the loss of aged or veteran trees found outside ancient woodland, unless the need for, and benefits of, the development in that location clearly outweigh the loss.

How can any benefit of development outweigh the loss of such a beautiful habitat and the amazing species within it, which could be lost forever?

The Woodland Trust believe this wording is as much use as a chocolate teapot.  The wording should be changed to ancient woodland loss being “wholly exceptional.”  The UK government disagrees, they believe there is adequate protection, despite there being absolutely no evidence to back that claim up.  What do you believe?  Do you want to protect our amazing and precious species?

As much use as a Chocolate Teapot Youtube video

Photo Credits:  Image 1 & 4 – WT/ML (Woodland Trust Media Library), Image 2, 3, 5, 10 & 11 – Getty Images, Image 6 & 8 – Nic Relton (Flickr Creative Commons license), Image 7 – Jim Champion / Geograph (Creative Commons license), Image 9 – Jan Svetlik (Flickr Creative Commons license)

Wednesday, 9 September 2015

Book Review - The Edge Chronicles - Doombringer - Book 2 Of The Cade Saga

The Edge Chronicles - Doombringer
Book 2 Of The Cade Saga
By Paul Stewart & Chris Riddell

I stumbled across this book in the recently returned section of my local library.  I was drawn to it by the beautifully illustrated cover by Jeff Nentrup, this magically floating ship with it’s starry lights along the hull, and a delicate plume of smoke coming from a giant metal-plated ball, which I later learn is it’s phraxchamber, and this is in fact, a skytavern! 

This is the first book in The Edge Chronicles I have read (even though it is book twelve in the series), and it is the second book in The Cade Saga, a trilogy of books focusing on the main character, Cade Quarter.  But it doesn’t matter where you join in, as the authors (writer, Paul Stewart, and illustrator, Chris Riddell) do an excellent job of introducing you to the series, gradually filling you in on the character’s history as you go along.  There are no lengthy sections of backstory, just gentle titbits fed to you as and when needed.  The language used just lightly challenges you too, I only had to reach for my dictionary a couple of times, having not come across a ‘coracle’ before, for example. 

I had no preconceptions of this series so I had no idea what to expect.  From the cover I assumed this might be a steampunk novel, and there are steampunk elements, but I think this book really excels at creating a fantasy world in the Farrow Ridges, a beautiful idyllic wild land surrounded by woods.  The novel starts off slow and safe feeling, it kind of reminded me of my days reading The Borrowers by Mary Norton, when they first venture afield, the lazy summer days admiring the natural beauty of nature around them.  The descriptions in this novel are amazing, you never forget you are in a fantasy setting, with materials such as ‘ironwood’ and ‘snailskin’, creatures like ‘Glitterwings’ and ‘Tilder’, give an otherworldly feel to it, yet somehow they seem relatable too.  The attention to detail, the different settlements built by the different races of goblins, they all have different cultures and ways of building their homes that sets them apart, they are unique and I loved discovering so much.  You feel fully immersed in this beautiful world. 

The illustrations by Chris Riddell are brilliant, with such great descriptions in this novel, it feels vivid and real to you anyway, and you could argue you don’t need them, but Chris Riddell captures the feeling of the scenes perfectly.  You feel the excitement, the joy, the calm before the storm, and the immediacy of the action, not to mention all the details in costumes and scenery.  The illustrations help to bring the story to life. 

My only gripe, and it’s really only a small one, is at least at one point, Cade Quarter’s dialogue sounded just like the narrator, describing the beautiful scenery in exactly the same style as the author.  It’s almost like he lost his personality and became the narrator.  It’s only one brief moment of only a few lines, it soon passes allowing you to get back on with the story.

There is so much to enjoy in this novel, there is danger, excitement, joy, halcyon days when the characters relax and enjoy their life, and you have to see and experience the good, to realise what they potentially have to lose.  You really get to know their characters, the land they live on, and the dangers they face.  There are some amazing creatures too, and the writer cleverly ups the ante as you progress through the novel, and often surprises you.  This novel has been described as original and unique, and I completely agree.  It is refreshing, awe-inspiring, and exhilarating; as a really good adventure should be.  You think you know what’s going to happen next, and you are surprised at every turn.  Fresh, fun, and you just have to know more. 

I love the ending of the novel too, without giving anything away, the novel has a fully rounded up ending.  But just like any great movie, there was a scene saved right to the end, like a teaser for the next instalment, and it just left you dying to read the next one!  This was handled beautifully in this novel.  I also want to check out the first book in The Cade Saga, The Nameless One.  But I’m not sure I can resist the pull to see what happens next, and where the authors are going to take me next.

If you crave adventure, excitement, beauty and wonder in a book, with characters you really get to know and care for, then this book is for you. 

Oh, and there’s monsters!

Saturday, 5 September 2015

Ancient Britain - What was it like?

Great BritainDo we appreciate the country of our birth?  The place we are born and grow up in?  When we think of going on holiday, we often think of visiting other countries; perhaps a road trip discovering America, or a safari in Africa to discover the amazing wildlife out there.  But we often forget to explore and discover the wonders and beauty of the country we live in.

I live in England, part of Great Britain.  Great Britain is an island that consists of England, Scotland and Wales; with Ireland to our west and Europe to our east.  It’s funny, I don’t think of my country as an island, I think of it as a large solid piece of land, a large country.  I imagine islands to be small tropical patches of sand, a few palm trees in the middle, in a hot climate surrounded by the ocean.  That isn’t anything like Britain. 

Britain is traditionally a cold, wet and windy place.  We think of business people rushing down the rain-soaked city streets with umbrellas, everything cold, wet, and grey.  But if you go back in time, Britain was a very different place.

Prehistoric Plants and Animals
Caveman hunting a Brown Bear
During the last Ice Age, some 20,000 years ago, Britain was connected to both Ireland and Europe by small strips of land, allowing prehistoric man and beast to migrate in and out of the country.  Early humans had to be hardy, living in caves and making flint tools by hand, they hunted brown bears, antelopes and wild horses across the frozen plains of Britain.

The Ice Age eventually came to an end, with the ice thawing, rising sea levels cut Britain off, first from Ireland, then from Europe too.  The once arctic climate now reached a warm 17 degrees Celsius in summer, allowing birch trees to spread, with shrubs and grasses appearing too.  The green and pleasant land that we know today was beginning to take shape.  The main hunted animal species were horses and red deer, although hares, mammoth, rhino and hyena were also hunted.  How amazing that we had these creatures in our country?

Animals of the Ice Age

As the greenery spread and began to develop into forests, humans struggled to hunt the herds of wild horses and reindeer they were used to across the flat plains.  They had to find new ways to hunt, and turned to the pigs, deer, wild boar and aurochs (wild cattle) flourishing in the new pine, birch and alder forests now covering our land. 

Around 5,000 years ago, as temperatures continued to rise, the pine forests were replaced by woodland, nature was blooming, with so much vegetation and wild animals, there seemed to be plenty to go around.  But humans were also blooming, our population was increasing, and so were our hunting and gathering skills.  So much so, we were beginning to exhaust our natural resources.  (Sound familiar?). 

So around 4,500 years ago, we began growing our own plants and domesticating wild animals as food.  Forests were cleared to make room for crops and animal enclosures.  They farmed native pigs and cattle at first, then sheep and goats were imported from the continent, along with wheat and barley, for which Britons later became renowned wheat farmers in the eyes of the incoming Romans.  Britain gradually became a country of arable land, pastureland, and managed woodland. 
Humans relied on woodland for just about everything: food, heat, animal enclosures, even shelter (once they ventured out of their caves).  Britons learned coppicing, the art of cutting young tree stems down close to the ground, where new shoots will grow back and can be harvested again.  They also discovered pollarding, similar to coppicing, only they cut the branches to just above head height to prevent animals from grazing on the new shoots.  Both brilliant ways to manage trees for timber, without killing the tree.  

This now makes sense of something I remember doing in Runescape, a medieval fantasy online roleplaying game set in a fictional world, where you performed a lot of the skills and tasks of medieval English people.  I remember we chopped the trees down to stump height, and the whole tree would reappear within a few moments.  Obviously time is speeded up in video games, but the concept remains the same, we were coppicing the trees so that they could grow back and be harvested again.

Personally, I would love to travel back in time, see the country as it was, covered in woodland full of strange and beautiful creatures.  I think it would seem almost like visiting an alien planet today, a bit like in the movie Avatar when they explore the forest and see alien animals for the first time.  Everything is wondrous and exciting.

Photo Credits:  Images 1, 2 and 3 - Wikipedia Creative Commons license.  Image 4 - WT/ML Woodland Trust Media Library.

Sunday, 9 August 2015

Enjoy Your Little Patch Of Trees

Following on from my previous blog post about the European Union Nature Directives Review, I have very good news:  The EU has had an unprecedented response to their public consultation, of just over half a million people standing up for nature!  This is fantastic!  At a time when nature needs these directives more than ever, with The Woodland Trust currently defending ancient woodland from over 600 threats in the UK alone.  We now have to wait while the results of this public consultation, along with a assessment of the use of these laws across Europe, will be summarised and put forward to Ministers in Spring 2016.  Fingers crossed they make the right decision and save these much needed laws!

Have a Green Adventure

In the meantime, why not take a well deserved break enjoying your local woodland?  You can have a little adventure walking amongst the trees, observing some local wildlife - butterflies, birds, grasshoppers, bees and squirrels all make their homes in local woodland.  You could try your hand at some wildlife photography, have a picnic (but always tidy up after yourself!).  The Woodland is also a great place to clear your head for some creativity.  Why not take a sketchbook with you, doodle what you see or what you feel?  If you're more of a writer, write down all your five senses - what can you see, smell, taste, hear and feel?  Record the experience fully, so you can cherish the memory later.  

Finding a green space is the best way to cool down and escape the heat of the hot summer sun.  (Yes, there is some sunshine over the UK!).  Somehow the earth seems able to absorb the heat of the sun without reflecting it back up to you like concrete does.  Plus you can always find a kind tree to provide a beautiful natural canopy to provide shade while you sit for a while, and let the cares of the world gently drift away.  

Not sure where your nearest woodland is?  Not to worry, The Woodland Trust has a great little tool on their website:  Find a wood to explore.  Simply enter your post code, click Go, and you will be shown a list of woods alongside a map, showing exactly where you nearest woods are!  They also have lots of great ideas for things to do on your woodland trails too.

Wherever you go and whatever you do, have a wonderful summer, you've earned it.

[Photo Credit:  WT/ML - Woodland Trust Media Library]

Thursday, 16 July 2015

A Little Patch of Trees...

Photo Credit:  WT/ML  - Woodland Trust Media Library

There’s a little patch of trees not far from where I live.  One of my first jobs from school, I used to walk through this little patch of trees.  They grow on a strip of grass between two roads, but they create a little archway, and it feels like you’re walking into a little oasis.  You can no longer see the busy road or the factories that surround it.  The grass is long where no mowing machine can reach, Magpies lazily poke about in the grass looking for food, and make their nests way up in the tall trees.  It’s a beautiful little habitat protected by these tall, arching trees.  A tiny little paradise in the middle of two busy roads.  It made my morning to walk through there, I always had to pause and take a deep breath of nature, before gently strolling on, feeling elevated by the green.

Now, many years later, I hear they’re planning to build on my little patch of trees.  My local council has plans to build on lots of little plots of grass and trees all around my small town.  They want to boost the economy with new homes and new businesses.  I’m going to miss my little patches of green. 

But this isn’t just happening in my town, it’s happening all over my country, all over Europe, and probably the world.  And it won’t just be little patches of trees, there’ll be bigger patches.  Patches of meadow, marshes, and forests; all containing their own little ecosystems of wild birds, animals and insects.  Some of whom are endangered. 

How can we protect them?

I was surprised to learn that there are no British laws protecting our wildlife and their habitats.  The only laws that have been giving any protection to British habitats is the European Union’s Nature Directives.  (I’d never even heard of these).  They include a Habitats Directive and a Birds Directive.  They look after our little friends and their homes.

The EU now wants to review these laws and see if they are still needed.  Given that the main focus is on regeneration and development, I think these laws are needed now more than ever.  While these laws may not be perfect, they may be the only thing standing between our countryside and a bulldozer.

The EU thinks these laws are little known about in the UK, they think no one over this side of the pond cares about them, or our natural habitats.  I think it’s time we stood up proudly for our countryside, and protect our little patch of land. 

The EU have put together a consultation questionnaire to find out what people think of these laws.  Over 100 organisations have joined together to try to keep these laws.  To make it simple for us to respond, they have created a pre-filled in questionnaire submission form.  Whether you are in the UK, Europe, or the rest of the world, please take a couple of minutes to click on this link, fill in your name and email address, and let Europe know we want these laws to protect our countryside all across Europe.  Let’s look after our little friends, for in turn, they look after us. 

If you want to find out more about what these organisations are doing, you can take a look at The WoodlandTrust’s EU blog post.  You can also send a message to the EU through The Woodland Trust, telling them in your own words how important our wildlife and habitats are, and why we need these Nature Directives.  

Please help save a little patch of trees.