A walk down the Kennet and Avon Canal

Over the weekend, my girlfriend and I visited her brother at his pad in Bath, Somerset. Even though I was born in Somerset, I’ve rarely visited Bath in the past, largely because there has never been a reason to, but also because Bath used to exist in its own county – Avon. However, in 1996 the ceremonial county of Avon was disbanded and both Bristol and Bath were incorporated into the ceremonial county of Somerset, lying in the district of Bath and North East Somerset. So anyway, we were actually quite excited to see what all the fuss was about.

Being the nature-loving family that we are, we decided to take a walk through the small village of Bathampton, a civil parish located 2 miles east of Bath. As the well-known Kennet and Avon Canal runs through the village, it seemed almost silly not to take a walk and admire this hidden gem. Not to mention, the views from Bathampton looking over the very south of the Cotswold National Park are astonishing and were more than enough to draw us in.

View from Bathampton Canal

Starting at the cutest little boat cafe – the “Cafe on the Barge” – we walked due East along the canal, leaving our car parked in the free spaces next to the church. Following the waters edge, we immediately passed the cutest collection of narrow-boats, ranging from short and stubby, long and skinny, brand new and barely floating. We thought to ourselves, it must be a simple life living on a narrow-boat. Limited space, limited utilities and a far more restricted materialistic lifestyle – a way of enjoying life without the endless supply of commodities.

Not far from where we began, our very peaceful walk was quickly ground to a halt, but not because of something common, but because a family of mute swans had bedded down in the middle of our path and included, mum, dad and 6 cygnets. Obviously, with 6 little ones, we were extremely cautious. It didn’t help that 2 of the cygnets had decided to travel the width of the path to eat the very green grass on the other side. This meant that to get past the swans, we had to walk between the parents and 2 of their young – not a great idea!

Swans at Bathampton

Photo: Said family of swans after we had safely crossed their path. If you notice the Cockapoo in the top right, I think you’ll find it funny to hear that they actually didn’t make it past the swans. After being one of the crowd waiting to get past, they eventually let their swan nerves get the better of them by turning round and giving up. 

In the end, by shooing the 2 cygnets back to their parents, we (and the crowd that by this time had built up too), scuttled past the swans as far over to the opposite side of the path as we could – single file and as quickly as possible. We were now able to continue our journey.

Shortly after making a wide bend along the canal, we arrived at the Bathampton Swing Bridge, a lovely example of the quirky characteristics you can find along Britain’s canals – swing bridges, locks and docks – all traditionally painted in black and white and operated by a simple push/pull system. Next to the bridge was a very dainty, very Bath-like cottage which overlooked both the view of the canal and the breathtaking landscape of the Cotswolds behind. Another picture taken by a member on Flickr shows the bridge looking face on, as if you were standing on the right hand side of my photo. Although their photo is titled Millbrook Swing Bridge, I’m pretty certain it’s actually the Bathampton bridge.

Millbrook Swing Bridge

Millbrook Swing Bridge by Keith Murray

Photo: The Millbrook Swing Bridge by Keith Murray. The gate on the right hand side was situated next to a public footpath, and during our trip we detoured up this path and viewed the canal and Cotswolds from above. The range of view was spectacular.  (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

You could keep walking for miles following the canal; all the way to Bradford-on-Avon if you wanted to, a whole 10.13 miles. Unfortunately on this occasion, we decided not to walk the whole 10 miles, but I’d love to do it in the future because the route even passes the Dundas Aqueduct, a spectacle for any lover of grand British architecture, or a photographer. Keith Murray kindly took some pics of that too, so you’re able to see it below.

But for anyone that’s not quite sure of the canals, or for someone that simply doesn’t realise their biodiversity and splendour, they’re out there, waiting to be explored, naturally exhibiting and supporting a huge range of fauna and flora. Please support and visit these untouched and wonderful examples of British biodiversity.

Dundas Aqueduct by Keith Murray

Photo: Dundas Aqueduct by Keith Murray (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

Dundas Aqueduct, River Avon below by Keith Murray

Photo: Dundas Aqueduct, River Avon below by Keith Murray (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0) 

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Complimentary Currencies – what are they and how can they help?

Photo: Cash Money by Andy Thrasher on Flikr. 

Before Christmas I attended a talk at my university and in all honesty, it was one of the most engaging and inspirational I’ve ever been too. I’m not a regular at university-run events (largely because I live quite far away) and I’m certainly not a regular to economics-based talks that are a world away from the laws of physics. But this particular talk caught my eye.

The lecture was being given by Kate Raworth, a rogue economist who amongst many things is attempting to break down the barriers and limitations of classical economics; doing so by swapping them for progressive and sustainable approaches that live within the social and ecological boundaries of the 21st century.

Over the course of an hour, Kate provided a snapshot view of her new book, Doughnut Economics, using each chapter as its own section of the talk, eluding to each and every approach that, she believes could transform us into 21st century economists.

Amongst all of her fantastic ideas, there was one that really stuck with me. A lightbulb moment, you could say.  You know, when an idea just clicks, and you can almost feel each and every neuron shooting through your brain, blasting from point-to-point at the speed of light until your whole head is just a glowing network of ideas, all crisscrossing and interconnected as if viewing London by space.

Oops, sorry for going slightly off subject… where were we…

Kate had begun by talking about money. More specifically, she was discussing the possibilities for creation and ownership of money, alternative to those that steered us into the financial crash of 2008. Things like, a requirement to hold 100% reserves for all money credited at commercial banks, or the issuing of one-off tax rebates for all indebted households during financial dips, coined “People’s Quantitative Easing”.

These are all fantastic, but it was her next idea that really struck a note. The idea is called a complementary currency. It is used alongside a national currency and is typically distributed on a local scale so that individual communities can reap the benefits. They can come in various shapes and sizes but are usually paper, electronic or arbitrary objects, and are in most cases interest-free.

Whether they are used to steer the social tendencies of marginalised communities, boost the local economy, provide utilities and services to the poorest, or provide alternative payment for traditionally unpaid work, they are working. So well that there are now numerous accounts of local communities benefiting from these initiatives.

Take Kate’s example*, which comprised of a community in Kenya who created and utilised the Banga Pesa. This is a complimentary currency aimed at easing pressure off of families during hardship by providing them with a means to purchase local goods, without using their standard money for essentials such as electricity.

But there are other examples too. Here in the UK, I’ve managed to find information on 6 complimentary currencies, all created to help boost the local ecnomoy and provide an alternative means of transaction for indepedent businesses. Starting with the oldest, these are the Totnes, Lewes, Stroud, Brixton, Bristol and Exeter Pound.

Exeter, created in 2015 is of course the newest, but the one regarded as the most successful has to be Bristol, which since its inception in 2012 has been traded at a total of over £5 million.

bristol pound by samantha bell

Photo: A 2012 £1 Bristol Pound note by Samantha Bell on Flikr (CC BY 2.0)

The fact that over 2000 members** are in on the idea means that you can now receive some of your salary in Bristol Pounds, can pay your tax with some (a world-first!) and can even draw some out of a local Bristol Pound cash point. It is the perfect example of how alternative forms of currency can strengthen a local community, even in a seemingly developed country.

Research** conducted by the University of Bath into why this form of monetary design works in Bristol highlighted some specific attributes that communities most possess if they too are to succeed in introducing a complimentary currency like the one operating in the south west. Bristol’s unique social and ethical character is a key driver in the community’s vision to operate in a more local and sustainable manner that promotes a smaller but stronger economy.

Users of the scheme have expressed a “feel good” factor associated with supporting local business, created as a result of the ideology driving the whole idea, one that promotes a sustainable and circular economy that can become resilient to financial crashes and independent of globalisation and large-scale commercialism. I can’t help but think if more of us had this same feel-good factor when we shopped, then we might just feel a little happier. And in this current climate, I’m sure we could all do with a little pick-me-up here and there.

These ideas could also be applied to even smaller groups of people, like the homeless community in a certain town or city or the elderly in another. The reasons for their creation would of course be unique to each situation – the elderly might need an initiative to encourage social interaction, whereas the homeless or poorest of our community might need a way to purchase basic necessities, even when they don’t have the cash to do so.

I hope, with the use of the Bristol Pound, I’ve made you more aware of the benefits of complimentary currencies. I also hope you realise their potential and are able to see how in actual fact, they could be used for even smaller communities and social groups to improve public spending, by directing it towards a more sustainable and circular network of consumers and retailers.

If you found this interesting and would like to find out more about both complimentary currencies or sustainable economics then these resources would be a good place to start:

 

*Read more examples in Doughnut Economics by Kate Raworth, pp.182-8

**S. Johnson and H. Harvey-Wilson, “A realist evaluation of the Bristol Pound”, Centre for Development Studies, University of Bath, 2017. 

Why you shouldn’t use artificial turf in your garden

Photo: We’re all here by Maureen Barlin on Flikr. (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Over the past 10 years or so, the desire for a low-maintenance replacement to the ever-growing grass lawn has fuelled the sale of artificial turf, the stuff that many of us would have played hockey on at school. A hard, plastic and unnaturally-green product that serves to take away the “thankless” task of mowing the lawn while providing a show-home looking garden for your “work-hard, play-hard”, “no time to do anything” lifestyle. How fun…

Sounds like suburban bliss doesn’t it? No wonder the Guardian interviewed an artificial lawn provider in suburban surrey for their views on the topic. But unfortunately, fake grass is yet another materialistic object that damages the environment, joined by the likes of 4ltr 4×4’s that’s never spend a day of their lives in the countryside while spitting out extremely high carbon emissions, convenience-based food and lifestyle products that are 9 times out of 10 made of plastic and extreme property development all over our irreplaceable rural countryside.

The sad thing is. This craze isn’t restricted to just suburban London. Earlier today, someone I know posted up some photos of their recent landscaping project. This wasn’t something I hadn’t seen before and I wasn’t completely surprised that it had made it my way. But I was shocked to find out that this devilish artificial turf had made it all the way to Devon. A place I thought actually cared about what’s outside and which I thought contained people who love their gardens. Obviously I was wrong.

How could I have been so naive? Even the turf companies are advertising the environmental benefits you can gain from installing artificial turf. These include:

  • Less carbon emissions as no need to mow the lawn
  • Less use of pesticides and weed killers as you’ve got no living matter to kill
  • Saves water because you’re grass is now a baron, plastic landscape.

Oh how wonderful those benefits sound (NOT!). I can’t believe that these companies are even allowed to promote this kind of rubbish. Obviously those things are true, but not for the right reasons.

So with artificial turf looking like its going nowhere and turf companies claiming artifical turf is the wonder-product, I thought I’d summarise all the reasons why you shouldn’t buy it.

Fake turf is commonly manufactured using tire rubber crumbs. These contain organic contaminants and traces of heavy metals.

Not exactly something you want to be releasing to the environment, especially when their in micro or nano form. There are plenty of other ways we can reuse tire rubber that doesn’t harm the environment (again).

If not made of rubber, artificial turf is also commonly manufactured entirely of plastic and will never biodegrade. 

Just like tire rubber, plastics like polypropylene, polyurethane and polyethylene are used to manufacture the turf. These indestructible materials are used because they are indeed indestructible. But unlike real grass (which never needs replacing), this artificial junk will one day need replacing. What happens to the plastic you say? Well, it gets chucked into the ocean obviously.

Installing artificial turf means removing all the nutrient-rich soil from your garden and replacing it with rubble and plastic. No worms, no life. 

Rubble and plastic certainly doesn’t sound like a nice environment for vital wildlife living in the soil. Worms especially need the soil to survive, turning mulch and organic matter into much needed nutrients for the plants above. Why do you think you can buy a wormery to compost your waste food? They’re great at fertilising the soil, provide routes for water to travel and are vital to a well-rounded ecosystem.

It destroys what little of a wildlife habitat you had left. No grass means no wildflowers, so no insects, bees or birds. 

Just like the worms provide food for plants, the worms are themselves food for a whole range of other wildlife like birds, hedgehogs and moles. With no food for plants, no wildflowers will grow, which in-turn will deter butterflies, bees and insects.

I could go on forever with other reasons why you shouldn’t install artificial turf. They all follow the same environmental theme and for good reason – why wouldn’t they be when we’re proposing to replace wildlife habitats with lifeless plastic?

So, next time you’re thinking of landscaping your garden and someone offers you artificial grass, please think about the effects it has on the wildlife in your garden. Be a wildlife supporter, not a wildlife destroyer.

My first experience of bird ringing

Photo: One of the male Blackcaps that we caught and processed. 

On Saturday, Sharnna and I got to experience bird ringing for the very first time. After following several bird ringers on Twitter and WordPress for some while now, I finally contacted a local trainer to enquire about us having a go.

As the sites are usually pretty muddy, we met our trainer at 7am in his local village and hitched a ride in his 4×4. With lunch packed and a bag brimming with bottled water in case we got thirsty, we were set for our day of ringing and had no idea how it would unfold.  After driving for 5-10 minutes, we arrived at our site for the day – 100 acres of private land brimming with life and owned by a chirpy elderly gentleman who had a profound admiration for wildlife.

When ringing, nets are used to catch the birds during their travels. In our case, we used mist nets which are a series of thin, black nets, which when viewed from front-on, are virtually invisible.

Ringing mist nets

One of my biggest concerns with ringing was the welfare of the birds being caught. There’s a large amount of controversy and a lot of people worry that ringing is cruel, so I was keen to get this topic out in the open with my trainer.

Ultimately, being caught in a net, handled and ringed is an unnatural and uneasy process for the bird in question and licensed ringers understand peoples concerns. However, achieving a ringing licence is a long process that requires consistent training for approximately 2 years, after which you’re still responsible to your assigned trainer. It is also a very important and effective means of collecting long-term and real-time data of both native and migratory birds, data that is vital to their conservation efforts.

After seeing first-hand how they’re caught, how they behave during the period and how they are affected afterwards, I am also certain that very little distress is passed onto the birds and very little are hurt during the process. If my trainer was anything to go by, the welfare of the birds being ringed comes first and foremost before anything else. Various precautions are taken to ensure the welfare of the birds and various factors regarding the landscape and weather are also taken into account.

Of course, the birds we study are wild and as such they should not be over-handled or regarded as a trophy. At the end of the day, ringing must be done for scientific and conservation efforts. When its just a fun hobby of catching birds for no scientific benefit then that’s when it starts being cruel. That being said, it’s important to state that no birds during my ringing session were treated this way. All of my photos were taken just after ringing and as you may notice, there are no photos of brooding female birds as these were all released immediately after processing.

Once we’d put the nets up, we set up a little “camp” quite far away from the nets themselves. Our trainer brought all the necessities, including scales for weighing (& accompanying pots for holding the birds), wing ruler, an assortment of BTO rings and matching pliers, as well a collection of fabric bird bags and a few other useful items – all secured in a cute little wooden box, the kind you’d imagine a scientist to keep 50 years ago.

Ringing Setup 120518

For each bird, we recorded the species, sex, feather length, age and weight. If female, we also scored her brood patch. The extent of knowledge and experience you require to do all these things is very large. It makes you understand why training takes so long.

All-in-all, we caught 4 Blackcaps, 1 Chiffchaff, 1 Robin, 1 Blackbird, 1 Kingfisher and 2 Bullfinches.

Although my trainer was a little disappointed, we were astounded! We hadn’t had the luxury of ringing 200 birds in a normal event, so this small collection was the best it was every going to get. The Blackcaps were a lovely site because you don’t usually see them much in standard gardens, definitely since there were 2 different pairs.

The Chiffchaff was an eye opener and made you realise how small birds actually are, and the blackbird, well, made you realise how aggressive small birds are!

Kingfisher 120518

The Kingfisher was the jewel in the crown, (even if she was a little scraggly and smelt of fish!) and the 2 Bullfinches were a spectacular site. As a notoriously shy breed, it was wonderful to see them up close. Their plumage is so straight, tidy and perfect. Almost as if someone has coloured them in, tirelessly ensuring they don’t cross the lines.

Bullfinch

All in all, our ringing day was amazing. Our trainer was brilliant. We shared opinions on animal and bird welfare, countryside life in Britain and the controversy surrounding ringing. They were all very important topics and ones that scientists should have a view on. As a fellow scientist and collector of data, bird ringing couldn’t of gone any better. It is the the epitome of what can be achieved through science and the natural world and warmly crosses between the two. It was the best experience I’ve had a in a long time and I can’t express how glad I am that I did it. I am certain ringing will remain in my life for many years to come, so watch this space for more updates.

My update on plastic free alternatives

During March, I set myself a goal of going plastic-free. I signed up to a month of attempting the impossible, with no idea if I’d continue it on. But here we are, nearing the end of April and my plastic-free choices have become not just a short-lived fad, but a complete lifestyle change and one that I don’t plan on changing.

On that note, I thought I’d write about some of the plastic-free alternatives we’ve come to amass over the last month and a half.

In the kitchen we’ve had to cut out a lot of plastic items, including cream, crisps, pre-packaged baked goods, chocolate bars and all types of sweets. We’ve switched to plastic free fruit and vegetables from our local farm shop, as well as our meat which we now get wrapped in greaseproof paper. We can also take Tupperware and get our meat packaged in that if we wish.

The featured photo above is a collection of the sweets we were able to buy from a small independent sweet shop in Portsmouth who sell all their sweets in paper bags. If you ask me, there needs to be more of these.

One great find was this chocolate milkshake from a Budgens petrol station. It’s completely plastic free and came in banana and strawberry flavour too. Unfortunately, we haven’t been able to source it anywhere else so milkshake has become a rare luxury.

For toiletries, we finally swapped to this glass bottled toothpaste by Georganics. It’s earthy in taste as well as texture and kind of feels like you’re brushing your teeth with peppermint flavoured clay. We’ve loved it so far though. It felt great to finally get rid of those awful plastic toothpaste bottles.

We originally turned to Lush for shampoo and conditioner as we’d read that they sold solid bars. We fell in love with the solid shampoo and loved the smell of the special Easter bar Lush sold recently. The conditioner was not so amazing but die leave a lasting sweet scent on your hair for a while. But both products were rather expensive so last week we took the plunge and ordered some homemade shampoo and conditioner bars from an independent seller on Etsy, at a fraction of the cost. The bars came wrapped in Christmas wrapping paper (which made us chuckle considering the date) which is a great plastic alternative, as you can see below.

The lovely lady who sent the bars even gave us a free bath bomb so our first Etsy experience was definitely a good one.

Our only criticisms would be the size of the bars, which get used very quickly. Alternatively if the conditioner was a little more solid, the smaller bars would be perfect. We love them nonetheless and would definitely recommend to someone looking to convert.

In the quest of finding more and more plastic free alternatives to all sorts of home objects, one bugbear was the smelly plastic washing up pads that are used for a few weeks and then thrown away. My first idea was a wooden washing up brush and I came across these Redecker brushes sold by 2 independent shops on Trouva.

Although they were a little more pricey than other brands, the ability to change the brush heads and their high rating made us choose these specific ones. In total, we got one soft brush for glasses and cups, one stiffer brush for plates and cuttlery and a pot brush, which uses very hard bristles.

So far, they’ve been brilliant. Each works perfectly for its specific type of washing up and they wash really easy too, so no smelly sponges left on the side. Definitely a recommended buy for anyone looking for a plastic free washing up alternative and one that is worth its weight in gold.

The last thing I’ll finish on is one that has been both very important to me and very difficult to overcome. As you may or may not know, I love birds. Well nature in general really, but especially birds. Trying to source plastic free bird food has been really difficult. All your standard shops like Pets at Home, supermarkets and other gardening stores like Homebase and Wilkos all sell bird food in plastic bags, many of them not recyclable. It’s bad enough they are in plastic in the first place.

Anyway, enough of my rambling. We found some plastic free bird food! At the Waitrose Leckford Estate farm shop and cafe. They sell bird food by the scoop and provide paper bags for you to use. This is awesome news and great for anyone living nearby in Hampshire who wants to go plastic free.

By going plastic free, we have not only cut our waste dramatically but also taken further steps to try and reduce our wider footprint on the environment. We compost our food waste, have switched to a renewable energy company for our electric (we don’t have gas here) and buy more sustainable and ethical food products such as organically and free range reared meat and milk.

We are also more conscious about what’s going into the ground when we’re gardening. This could be by examining the bad effects caused by herbicides, fertilisers and pesticides or by using more sustainable gardening practices such as choosing mulching over digging when preparing beds.

What I’m trying to say is that what began as a plastic free idea has grown into way more than expected. Like our perennials that we thought would never flower in their first year, who unexpectedly started flowering just a few days ago with the most lovely, petite blue flowers you could see. Going plastic free has grown into something really special. More like a lifestyle than just a “fad”.

We now make much more sustainable choices and live our lives better because of it. So, if this post does anything then I hope it inspires you to try plastic free and I hope I’ve given you some ideas to start, or if not then even to go organic or to simply become more aware.

A reflection of my blogging journey through 23 Things

Photo: Reflection by Paul Saad (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Surprisingly 12 weeks have passed since I first began blogging for 23 Things. It’s been a crazy journey and one that I’m glad I joined in on – especially since many of my peers haven’t managed to finish.

Without a doubt I have my favourite weeks. Of course, these are subjective and may not float everyone’s boat, but for me some tools were especially useful.

For things 4 and 5, we were tasked with creating an account on Twitter. For someone that had previously been dormant on Twitter for many years, this provided me with a great oppurtunity to get back into the Twitterverse. I now use Twitter most days and will continue to use it as an outlet for my research. At the moment, I really like the hashtag’s #sciart and #scicomm.

Mendeley and Creative Commons followed shortly and have probably become my most used aspects of the course. Mendeley saved my life when writing my first literature review and made the handling of 250 references seem a breeze. Creative Commons on the other hand has given me all the necessary know-how regarding copyright and ownership of material, particularly images. You’ll notice every post since has used an image with a Creative Commons licence.

My most enjoyable week came next – data visualisation (& other things). I utilised the dataisbeautiful subreddit during this week and enjoyed hunting through the masses of posts to find the coolest examples of visualising big data (I’ve re-posted the one I found for that post below – an awesome display of the change in vegetation intensity over a year in Africa). I also really liked the other data sites the post eluded to, such as Gapminder, which I thought was really well established and had some awesome graphics that I could try and incorporate into my work one day (maybe in a poster?).

Vegetation in Africa GIF

Photo: Vegetation intensity throughout the year for Africa by mikea0228 (Reddit)

Nearing the end of 23 things during week 10, I assessed the art of collaboration within research and came across the incredible Zooniverse. It’s a people powered research website for projects that require lots and lots of data and which utilise you and I to get that data. Since first using Zooniverse I’ve helped collect data for a handful of projects. One involving the counting of sea birds and one transcribing social science papers from over 200 years ago. As you may or may not know, I’m a proud birder and so the bird counting project was especially cool.

Of course, between these posts there have also been several alternative topics that you can find more information about on my blog. I enjoyed them but the ones I’ve just mentioned were hands-down the most fun.

Across the 12 posts, I’ve researched and wrote about everything from social media and bibliometrics to data visualisation and screen casting. The journey has been one made up of a landscape of continual hills and troughs, consisting of tools I’ve both hated and loved, some even becoming second-nature to my research.

But most importantly, 23 things has given me my blog and the confidence to keep writing. To write even when I thought what I was writing was rubbish. Or when I thought nobody was going to like it. The beauty about blogging is that even if nobody reads it, you’re not doing it for them, but for yourself. Well, I’m doing it for myself anyway, even if others choose differently. I wanted my blog to be a capture of my interests and my journey through my engD and for me, that is good enough.

So 23 things is over. Onto a new chapter and a new feel of post… happy blogging!

A change of name

Photo: Kingfisher looking for fish by James West on Flikr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

It’s a natural thing to grow and develop as time passes; be moulded by the places and people you visit, and by the experiences you face.

Over the course of the last 4 months since I first created Recycled Science, my blog has grown into something that was a “tick-box” task originally created for 23 things, into something that I love doing and genuinely look forward to posting on.

And that’s why I’ve decided to change my blog name. Fuelled by more diverse interests and a much more personal feel, the choice to change to The Electric Kingfisher was one that took much deliberation but I feel represents me as a person much more fully.

Same posts, same person, just a different look. I hope you keep reading ♦