Sunday, 28 September 2014

Graeme Green-er

Our Lass and I do try to be as environmentally and ecologically aware as possible. At least for a given value of 'possible'. We have moved into a well-insulated home which, although heated by oil, has an efficient condensing boiler. The house isn't too big for our needs, so we are using and heating as little room as necessary. The garden is large by the standards of what we had become used to when living in a city and, whilst we no longer put food out for birds (there's loads of natural and farmed habitat where they can find sustenance), we do try to leave a bit of the garden as a wild area. Actually, that's a big fib... most of the garden is wild!

Yours Truly caught on camera by a visiting Second Born
We are able to recycle the majority of our household waste: glass, paper, cardboard, tin and some plastic through a fortnightly collection; and garden waste, clothing and beverage cartons by taking them to the local recycling centre.

When it comes to what we eat, our rules are as local as possible, as sustainable as possible and then as organic as possible.

Food waste is kept to a minimum by planning meals, freezing bulk purchases and creative use of leftovers (I'm quite proud of my 'sad salad drawer' stir fry!).

But I have to admit that I have an Achilles' heel that drives roughshod through all our good environmental works. 'Drives' and 'roughshod' being rather apt. For about fifteen years, my transport of choice has been a succession of 4x4 vehicles, all rather useful for transporting all manner of what have you and excellent for wildlife watching. However, they're a bit heavy on the juice and, consequently, on the pocket. What to do, eh?

Sometimes, you just have to stand back and look at the numbers. Lives change, time moves on, the shifting sands of technological advances smother the unwary and one day you wake up and realise that there is a different way.

So, those numbers...

Old 4x4
With some careful driving, I manage about 34mpg from the truck (which equates to about £2500/year in fuel), but those carbon dioxide emissions contaminate both the atmosphere and my bank account (£285/year). And it's not the cheapest thing to insure, even in Orkney.

The gas guzzler just has to go, to be replaced with a smaller, more fuel-efficient car. Perhaps all the re-appraising that has occurred during the past year has made this decision a little easier.
Newer replacement
Hmmm, this looks a bit healthier all round. Reducing fuel costs by more than fifty per cent at a stroke. With emissions below 100g/km, there's no road tax to pay, and I also make a saving of £100 a year on insurance premiums. Winner!

But I may have to invest in a trailer, for those occasional trips to the recycling centre with fourteen large bags of dock leaves and assorted other garden detritus. All of which should provide plenty of comedic potential when my reversing skills come into play.

Friday, 26 September 2014


This is not a political blogpost, I promise. There'll not be any post-referendum angst or a raft of carelessly-flung and unfounded accusations here. Nope, this is about the progressive rock band Yes.

You're probably thinking "Progressive rock? Isn't that history?"

Well, yes, and then again, no.

First, the history. The band were formed in 1968, at a time when a young Tenselet still thought that The Scaffold's 'Lily the Pink' was a nifty tune and the height of sophistication... which, of course, it was :o)

Through the 1970s, Yes released a string of top ten albums in the UK which, strangely, all passed me by. I guess we weren't at home to peer pressure when it came to progressive rock. I ploughed a lonely ELP furrow to the mystification of my school chums, preferring Keith Emerson's keyboards and Greg Lake's lyrics and voice to the more ethereal stuff provided by Yes.

All that changed in the 1980s with '90125' and 'Big Generator', which were more pop rock than progressive but, weirdly, less successful commercially.

The single 'Owner of a Lonely Heart', from '90125', went to Number 1 in the US chart, but only just broke into the Top 30 in the UK. Years later, a work colleague (now sadly not with us) sent me a link to a remix video, which I think contains as much innocent amusement as it is does bikini-clad inappropriateness. But that might just be me... see what you think?

But to bring things more up to date, for me, the stand-out Yes track, the one that always found its way onto Tense Towers compilation CDs and now lives on my phone, is 'Shoot High, Aim Low' from 'Big Generator'.

This track was never released as a single, it's not that kind of song. It has been said that it isn't even that kind of Yes song, but it speaks to me like no other. Sadly, I've not been able to find an original video whilst researching this blogpost, but here are two different takes on the song: the first with stills; the second set to footage from the film 'Avatar'.

But to complete the historical circle, I still think it's at its best as vinyl, when listened to on a record deck with the volume cranked way up.

Please enjoy responsibly.

Wednesday, 24 September 2014

A touch of the exotic

I spent yesterday sub-contracting for another firm. Well, it gives me a change of scene, is furnished with a range of mildly-abusive, work-related banter and provides travel to exotic locations.

OK, so it was Caithness, but during the second visit of the day, as I was fetching some equipment from the van, a rather exotic-sounding bird call rang out through the surprisingly mild September air.

Do they have Birds of Paradise in the north of Scotland?

Typically (and I really should've known better), it wasn't some gaudily-plumed, jack-in-the-box screecher. Let's face it, Caithness is not known for its dense rainforest habitat. Dense rain, perhaps, but forest? No.

That said, compared to Orkney, it was very verdantly vegetated. And vertically, too, rather than practically horizontal. There was an actual hawthorn hedge by the side of the road, for crying out loud. Can you imagine? Oh yeah, you probably can, my bad. Any road, all of these trees and shrubby stuff may have been enough to knock my ears out of kilter.

What was that call?

Eventually, the bird hopped into view at the top of a conifer.

Great Tit.

Had to be, eh? The old 'if you don't know what it is, it's a Great Tit' mantra.
So, more Paridae than Paradisaeidae.

I was a mere 43km from home, but it could've been a world away. The hour's ferry journey across the Pentland Firth is just not something which Parus major is that bothered about. I blame the pricing policy and the lack of peanuts in the galley.

Tuesday, 23 September 2014

Referendum reprise

In the aftermath of the referendum on Scottish Independence, 2 million NO voters defeated 1.6 million YES voters (a 55% to 45% split).

However, it would appear that, regardless of the outcome, the British political landscape has changed forever. Things will be different from now on.

On the day following the referendum, Alex Salmond, the First Minister of Scotland and leader of the Scottish National Party, announced his resignation.

I have wanted to write about the emotions I felt during the campaign, the referendum day and the subsequent resignation of Alex Salmond, but to no avail. The words were not there to adequately express my wonder at the significant political engagement by the population, my disappointment at the result of the vote or the sense of loss when a charismatic and earnest politician steps down. If only there were a few more politicians of this ilk.  

However, a blogpost by Jon Snow, the ITN journalist, pretty much summed up what I was thinking. See here.

Thursday, 18 September 2014

Comms alert

Hard on the heels of this morning's Referendum blogpost... here's another one.

The circumstances are a bit different.

The phone rings, the caller wants a bit of help with an urgent job...

[Him] Meet at 4pm and we'll be done by 6pm.

[Me] OK.

It turns out that Sky TV needed another broadband feed for the broadcast from Kirkwall Grammar School where the Orkney result will be announced.

Here's BBC Radio Orkney's take on the event preparations.

And here's mine...

Ours is the wee temporary mount just left of centre. A feed from the dish to inside the building, then a couple of ethernet cable runs through the building to the media platform.

It almost felt like being back in the game.

The sound check was brilliant. Some bloke (who I recognised as a fiddle player) let fly with:

"The Referendum results for Orkney are...

Yes... zero.

No... zero.

Spoiled ballot papers... 17,934."

Gotta love Orcadians!

Scottish Independence Referendum

Photo courtesy of

Today, the people of Scotland are voting in the Independence Referendum, in answer to the question "Should Scotland be an independent country?"

Yes or No?

It's a very simple choice which sits atop a multitude of complex issues. To remain part of the Union within the United Kingdom (of England, Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales) or to be an independent country.

The No campaign, Better Together, have stressed the advantages of remaining a part of the Union and the fearful consequences of leaving it. This has been seen by some as a very negative tactic. The No campaign is backed by the leaders of the three main political parties in the Westminster Parliament in London.

The Yes campaign is mainly influenced by the Scottish Nationalist Party (SNP) in the partly-devolved Scottish Parliament in Edinburgh. In a more positive campaign, the Yes camp have argued that an independent Scotland will be amongst the 20 most prosperous countries in the world and will be able to deliver a fairer society for all its citizens.

Seeing as how this is a wildlife blog, the Independence debate has not been very fertile ground from an environmental or ecological standpoint, hence the lack of posts about it. So how does one choose where to put one's cross on the ballot paper?

It is not a party political decision, as both sides of the debate are represented by numerous parties. However, the European Union is a bit of an issue. An independent Scotland may not be immediately allowed to rejoin, although there is reason to believe that the UK, in lurching to the right, may leave the EU anyway. Up to this point, the EU and its Habitats Directive have provided some environmental protection for endangered wildlife within the British Isles.

Scotland is well set to generate its energy needs from the remaining oil under the North Sea as well as longer term renewable energy from wind, solar, wave and tide. The UK's leanings are more to fracking and nuclear, which may be less unsightly in the short term.

Sadly, neither side have championed free cake for all, nor tax breaks for submitting dragonfly records.

It's a conundrum, right enough.

I am impressed by the level of engagement of the Scottish populace. This is an issue that has brought everyone into the debate. It will be interesting to see what percentage of voter turnout is achieved, as I suspect it will be in great contrast to that normally seen in local and general elections. It certainly feels more democratic than anything I have so far experienced.

Good Luck, Scotland. Choose wisely.

Sunday, 14 September 2014

Another brick in the wall... we do need some education

The dry stone wall, which borders one side of the garden at OTT, is in a state of disrepair. This could be due to a combination of several factors: age (its, not mine); subsidence caused by the activities of rabbits; large farm machinery driving passed it on a regular basis, or overzealous weeding at its base by Our Lass and I.

Irrespective of the cause, the solution is the same. Rebuild it. There wasn't even a discussion about whether we wanted a different type of boundary. We both like the wall and the habitat it creates. It is probably not substantial enough for nesting birds (wrens and starlings might possibly consider it), but its nooks and crannies supply homes for all manner of invertebrates. Recently, following an influx of wagtails to the area (probably due to migration), we often have a Pied Wagtail pottering across the lawn or along the wall, searching for tasty morsels.

Whilst not quite tall enough to hide the barbed wire fence of the field over the road, it does bring a flavour of Orkney stone into the garden and is a likely substrate for lichen to colonise.

Not wanting to blindly blunder into some substandard nightmare recreation of neolithic stonework, I booked myself onto a one day course to learn the basics of dry stane dyking (as it's known up here), run by Voluntary Action Orkney on behalf of the Scottish Crofting Federation. So, yesterday morning, I and eight other keen students presented ourselves at a site in Orphir to soak up some knowledge of 'rock Lego'.

Kevin, our tutor, showed us how to construct an A-frame, for use with a string line, to ensure that our wall was level and even.

We split into teams of three and commenced work, from the ground up. Ian and Steve (pictured) drew the short straw and had me for company.

Kevin patrolled the line, helpfully pointing out where we were going wrong and offering advice and encouragement. It really isn't as easy as it looks and the most important bits seem to be the small stones that fill the centre of the wall and bind everything together.

Approaching lunchtime, we had made some progress and worked up a good appetite too. We adjourned to Kevin's home, a short distance away, where his wife had prepared a meal for all the attendees. Soup, a Ploughman's salad and homebakes. Delicious!

After lunch, and a tour around the exquisitely-crafted dry stone structures at Chez Kevin, we set to once more, endeavouring to maintain the profile of the wall as it grew skywards.

Ta-dah! Not bad for a first attempt, we thought. And now we are suitably emboldened to try this at our own homes and gardens.

To be continued...

At some point.

Friday, 12 September 2014

Solar flair

As the sun accelerates towards the Autumnal equinox, on its journey along the western horizon, the evening colour palette is augmented with a predominance of grey hues.

The ephemeral pinkness of an Orphir dusk

Saturday, 6 September 2014

I don't believe it!

Proof, if it were needed, that living in Orkney is a great deal different from holidaying in Orkney, is provided by my lack of Hen Harrier photographs during the last nine months. Binoculars and camera are on permanent standby at home, but even that is not a sufficient state of readiness when one of these gorgeous raptors glides across the neighbouring field.

Several visitors, obviously in full-on holiday mode, have snapped amazing shots from the front doorstep, or beside the garden wall, but I'm just not in the game. Now that I think about it, I don't recall actually capturing a decent harrier image when we were holidaying either, but that was probably due to a combination of factors: insufficient lens power (2006-2007); injured (2008); on an island with lack of suitable harrier habitat (2009, 2011, 2013).

So here I am, able to see Hen Harriers all year round, through Winter roosting, Spring and Autumn migration and Summer breeding. And whilst we don't live near prime moorland habitat, there's plenty of Orkney Voles on tap, so the occasional bird of prey graces the environs of OTT with a flypast. It's just not happened when I've had camera in hand.

I shouldn't whinge. Plenty of folk would give their eye teeth to have the enthralling encounters that we have been able to experience. As I'm sure I've mentioned before, the species is seriously threatened in England and parts of Scotland due to illegal persecution. Therefore, if I seem churlish at my 'misfortune', please forgive me this small selfishness.

Mind you, it isn't helped when I return home from work, as I did this afternoon, to be greeted by Our Lass, with a small compact camera in hand, brandishing an image to make my hair stand on end.

Not just a Hen Harrier photo...

Not just a Hen Harrier photo, taken from the lounge window...

Not just a Hen Harrier photo, taken from the lounge window, showing a bird sat on a fence post across the road...

But a Hen Harrier photo, taken from the lounge window, showing a bird sat on a fence post across the road, with another harrier sat on another fence post a little further still down the road.


Our Lass informed me that they both had ringtails, so would be either female or juvenile. I must admit, I don't know whether two adult birds of the same sex would tolerate each other to this extent, or if it is more likely that they are siblings who have fledged this year.

If only she'd had time to pick up Very Wrong Len before a car drove past and frightened them away. No-o-o-o-o-o-o!

Thursday, 4 September 2014

Border urgency

Whilst we have been taking our time, considering the options for laying out the garden at OTT, Our Lass has been keenly bustling one of the borders into shape.

I say 'one of the borders' but, at the moment, it is the only border. And it is not yet free of Docks, but we're getting there, bit by bit.

Crocosmia, Red Campion, Common Ramping Fumitory, Cornflower... then back to the mystery Brassica and Docks. There's a few Meconopsis hidden behind the Fumitory, too.

The old garden fork came with us from Milton Keynes. It was a much-loved perching spot for a Robin, back then. Now that the handle has disintegrated, it isn't such an easy landing pad, but the odd Starling has graced its weathered wood (I've just not been quick enough to record it for posterity).

The Cornflowers have survived the winds and are providing shelter for yet more Fumitory. A few small trees in pots are hiding up against the dry stane dyke, awaiting their turn to go mano a mano with the Orkney weather.

This week, an old shovel has joined the garden fork, to give the border that 'I've just nipped inside for a cup of tea, but I'll be back' look. And we spotted a Robin the other day, the first we've seen since early Spring.