False Dichotomies

Today’s post is a bit of a diversion from the normal run of things, but bear with me. The ability to think clearly, recognise false arguments and counter bad logic is valuable for anyone, in any circumstances.

My father, when we were kids, used to drive us nuts on a regular basis. A simple yes/no question invariably drew difficult answers.

Tea or coffee?   Yes.

Cake or ice-cream?   Yes.

Do you want badgers or hedgehogs?

I don’t believe we ever asked Dad that last one, but it’s the same principle and I’ve put it in for a reason.

I’m getting fed-up of the hysteria over badgers. The UK has badgers. Lots of badgers. 288,000 at least, probably more since that’s a 2011 figure and the badger population is rising all the time, despite 45,000 a year squashed on the roads. Dairy farmers aren’t that happy about the badger population density because badgers, like cows, can catch, carry and transmit tuberculosis. Whether cows give it to badgers or badgers give it to cows is probably irrelevant – though TB has long been known to be a cattle disease, arriving in the human population when we started keeping cattle as livestock, thousands of years ago, even though now most TB in humans (in the UK, at least) is caught from other humans.

Whichever way it goes, a farmer whose cows test positive for TB has to destroy the affected animal(s). So a farmer with TB infected badgers roaming about his farm runs the risk of losing his livelihood as his cows may pick up TB from the badgers. The argument there goes, there’s lots of cows and badgers are cute, so the cows (and farmers) should be sacrificed for the badgers.

I’ve had first-hand experience of badgers and livestock – some years ago we lost our small duck flock in the back garden overnight, together with some chickens. The culprit? We found the cheeky beggar sleeping in the henhouse, curled up in the nestbox with his dinner (one of the ducks) snuggled under his chin, ready for a late snack. It was a badger.

(Newsflash – real badgers are not “cute”, no matter what they look like on TV. They are amazingly smelly and can bite your leg to the bone when cornered.)

They’re strictly protected. You can’t disturb their setts (burrows) nor shoot, trap, snare, drive ’em out with terriers or otherwise persecute them. But there’s no law that says you have to give them board and lodging in your henhouse so young brock went down the drive at high speed with the prickly end of a brush chasing after his tail and we no longer keep ground-nesting birds like ducks. He was probably a young male on the roam for a new sett to move into – young males get moved on to fresh territories by their elders.

Now, I don’t particularly hold it against badgers that they act like the predators they are. They may mostly eat earthworms and beetles but they’re members of the weasel family and they’re carnivores. Show a carnivore a sitting duck (pun intended) and he’ll head in teeth-first. I don’t expect a badger (or a fox) to consider my property rights or the ethics of scoffing the livestock I’ve carefully nourished and cared for without due recompense for my loss. I expect a badger to eat unguarded poultry, just as I expect any predator to be a predator. That why we lock the hens up at night (foxes), that’s why the rabbit shed door isn’t left open (cats) and why I’m careful not to discuss the full extent of my prepping activities with anyone (humans).

Not all predators go on four legs.

Let’s get back to hedgehogs. The UK used to have lots of hedgepigs, or urchins. It was estimated there were upwards of 30 million in the 1950s, when badger numbers were lower, cities were smaller, there were less people and more hedges. Now there’s probably less than 1.5 million. Tiger populations are decreasing more slowly than this! Causes of the decline? Certainly habitat loss, to some extent – less hedges, bigger fields, more intensive agriculture, more pesticides (means less slugs/beetles for hedgepigs to eat). Urbanisation is probably irrelevant – back gardens and parks, provided they’re reasonably untidy, are superb hedgehog habitat. More people…. probably mostly irrelevant too, except more people means more road-traffic and hedgehogs famously have road-crossing problems. But badgers? Badgers eat hedgehogs. They’re the only animal in the UK (except people) which can get past the spiky wrapper to the meat on the inside.

Kew Gardens used to have lots of hedgehogs, apparently. Then in the 1980s, badgers moved in and now Kew, 300 acres of superb hedgehog habitat, has 60+ badgers and zero hedgehogs.

Obviously badgers and hedgehogs have both co-existed in the UK since the end of the Ice Age so it’s possible, under the right circumstances, for them to continue co-existing now. But with blanket protection for brock and an exploding badger population, maybe the time has come to ask, are we over-protecting badgers and what will we sacrifice to keep the badger-huggers happy? Hedgehogs? Farmers’ livelihoods? Poultry?

Are hedgehogs “cuter” than badgers?

Now, I called this post false dichotomies for a reason. Remember that question?

Do you want badgers or hedgehogs?

This is a false dichotomy because, as my father so delighted in pointing out with his frustrating one-word answer, it’s not an either/or choice. I’d like badgers AND hedgehogs, please. In a reasonable balance and, while we’re at it, I don’t mind foxes but only in moderation. I’d like ground-nesting birds not to be wiped out by exploding pine-marten numbers. I don’t see why anglers playing catch-and-release games with innocent fish complain when a hungry otter (shock horror) catches and doesn’t release some fish (and I’ve no time for anyone who spends their time ranting about social inequality and anti-austerity while taking home more money for less work than any other politician in the UK when there’s ex-servicemen living rough. When was the last time a politician showed willing to put their life on the line for the country?)

The relevant word in my answer is balance. Badgers presumably had some kind of natural check on their population during the millennia when they and hedgehogs lived in balance in Britain – maybe bears eat badgers, or lynx, or maybe wolves, or perhaps there were enough aurochs roaming the forests to squash 45,000 badgers a year. Something must have kept badger numbers down enough for hedgehogs to thrive alongside them, but it’s not here now. Whatever it was, it’s a fair bet that humans removed it (or them) because we’ve had such a massive impact on this island of ours since then. We wiped out all the big predators, we cut down a lot of the forests, we built towns and cities (there are urban badgers, if not so many as urban foxes!) and, admittedly, we also hunted badgers and tortured them in baiting rings. I’ve no time for anyone who’s deliberately cruel to any creature, whether it’s pulling the wings off flies or setting dogs on badgers, rats, each other or whatever. If you’re going to kill, it should be for a good reason (“fun” isn’t a good reason) and it should be quick and clean. Kill to eat, kill to protect yourself (I wonder how many of the ardent “animal-lovers” would willingly allow a tiger or a bear to bite them?), kill to prevent suffering, or kill to keep the balance, but I don’t kill for fun – and do, please, note there’s a distinction between killing for fun and taking a pride in killing something well. If you don’t take a pride in killing well, that means you don’t mind killing incompetently. (While we’re on the subject, please do stop and finish off your roadkill, don’t leave it lying in agony for hours while the crows take it apart piecemeal. Animals feel pain and fear just as humans do so show some decency and kill the poor beggars properly. Quickly.)

After all, if people didn’t kill wild rabbits, we’d have no cereal crops. If we didn’t shoot foxes that raid henhouses, we’d have no chickens or eggs. Pigeons and rooks damage cereal crops, badgers take poultry (and hedgehogs) and deer can devastate crops and young trees alike. We took away the things that kept their populations in balance before, so it’s up to us to provide that balance now – by culling the populations that are too strong, and encouraging the populations that are struggling.

In Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, Pirzig addresses this problem of false dichotomy though the metaphor of the horns of a bull. It’s a very appropriate metaphor, since another word for ‘dichotomy’ is ‘dilemma’, which means ‘two horns’. It’s been a while since I last read the book and I don’t remember exactly how many options he came up with for avoiding having to choose “left horn” or “right horn” of his dilemma, but it was about 13 or thereabouts, I think.

Hedgehogs on the left, versus badgers on the right. Now…. we could refuse to enter the arena. Give them both exactly the same treatment and refuse to face the problem. Unfortunately this will continue the current course and it’ll be curtains, urchins.

We could establish hedgehog reserves where badgers can’t go. Offshore islands, perhaps? Oh, wait, offshore islands are ideal ground-nesting-bird territory and Mrs Tiggywinkle, if you didn’t know, loves eggs. That’s why there’s hedgehog-removal schemes in the Western Isles.

We could re-introduce the big predators that used to keep badger numbers down. Oops, no, remember why we wiped them to begin with? Lynx and wolves take livestock and bears have been known to kill people. Probably not a starter for ten, that one!

We could fall back on culling badger numbers to protect farmers, cows and hedgehogs – we just need to find a reliable, humane and effective method, which was the major problem in the trial culls over the past couple of years. Live trap and then shoot at close range? Go back to gassing setts?

Any more suggestions?

False dichotomies like this show up all the time in real life. In climate change, one of the most common false dichotomies is “natural or man-made” causes. It’s not an either-or question because there are both natural and man-made causes – but the natural ones don’t cause such rapid change that we risk being unable to adapt.

Politics is another area where false dilemmas breed – do you vote Labour, or Tory? Though this, looking at the recent election, seems less of a dilemma now we also have UKIP and the SNP getting major support in some areas! In the States it’s even worse, since they only seem to have Republican and Democrat as flavours.

It’s worth learning how to spot these false dichotomies and find ways around them in any context – anything that helps with thinking in colour instead of black and white is good, as my father used to say!

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And another round-up post….

Having enjoyed a very pleasant week visiting friends in the Northern Isles, doing a little .22 shooting on their range, spending a day afloat on Scapa Flow, a little gentle hiking and generally unwinding and relaxing, I’m back and caught up on things around house and garden again.

The bunnies are all fine, and Trudy was handed a nestbox last night. She’s an experienced mum so she hopped nonchalently into it, inspected it briefly, then went back to the hayrack. This morning there’s a little white fur randomly dumped in the bottom of it, which bodes well – hopefully Sunday she’ll fill it up properly with loads of luscious fur and pop her kits in it. These will be Silver’s first offspring, so I’m hoping all’s good!

Nothing I can do about it if otherwise, of course.

I think one of the frogs is out and about, there’s a suspiciously frog-like surreptitious submerging movement in one of the ponds from time to time, but I haven’t managed to spot the critter yet. No sign of the toad yet but then toads are like that.

I’ve had the mandatory inspection visit from the FLO (firearms licensing officer) and convinced him I’m a normal, sane, non-dangerous member of society, so a few more clay-shooting lessons and a bit more storage space and he’ll sign off on my application for FAC and SGC. I had an ammunition reloading lesson from one of the other club members yesterday – it seems basically a simple process, though requiring attention to detail, a methodical approach and a calm state of mind, so that’s another small brick of knowledge added to my enjoyment of a fascinating hobby. There’s a pre-season friendly competition on Sunday and I’ve been offered the loan of rifle and revolver so I can take part – I’m looking forward to it!

One of our chickens (we’re not sure which) has discovered that eggs are edible, nay delicious, so we’re taking steps to discourage the pastime. We’ve darkened the nestbox, presented them with a boobytrapped egg (two halves of an eggshell glued back together around a mix of chilli powder, garlic powder, curry powder and mustard powder) in the hope of giving the culprit a nasty surprise, and also put two “fake” eggs in the nestbox. They’re very realistic-looking but made of rubber, so any probing beak should bounce off unrewarded. So far, it’s working – we haven’t lost any more eggs since we bombarded them with this raft of remedies.

Fingers crossed the fix lasts – otherwise the only solution is to find out which one it is and wring her neck.

Apart from that, the weather is warming up, the wind has dropped (for now) and the spuds are chitting nicely. Further updates as and when!

Peak Oil, Peak Water, Peak….. Chicken?

I came across this article from the Smithsonian today and it did make me do a slight double-take. I’m familiar with the concept of ‘peak’ commodities – the idea that on a finite planet, there’s got to be a limit to how much of any one item you can produce. Peak Oil, for example, is the (commonsense) idea that, given a finite resource that only regenerates over billions of years and yet gets pumped out at amazing volumes, sooner or later the world will have reached its limit on the amount of oil you can produce per day. Depending on how you define “oil”, that peak is generally accepted to have come and gone – 2005, in fact, was the point in time when the oil companies were producing their maimum output of oil-barrels-per-day. Since then the definitions have been stretched a bit to include oil-equivalents (condensates from natural gas, tar boiled into something that flows, etc) but natural crude oil is on the decline. Slowly, but still going down.

Peak Water is a concerning idea for anyone in water-short areas (not most of the UK, at the moment!) as sooner or later you have to face the fact that there’s only so much potable water to go down an ever-increasing number of throats.

But Peak Chicken? That’s a new one on me. Still, the idea is as valid as any of the other ‘peaks’ – sooner or later, you can’t grow any more chickens per day. Here’s a few other ‘peaks’ from the article:

peak corn 1985

peak rice 1988

peak poultry eggs 1993

peak milk and peak wheat both in 2004

peak cassava and peak chicken 2006

peak soy 2009.

Unfortunately, while there seem to be many things we can’t produce in greater quantities, Peak Humans isn’t expected before at least the middle of the century. Simple commonsense suggests that if there’s no more to go round but more people expecting a share, it’s not going to end nicely. All the more reason to try and secure your food supplies while you still can!

Off the Scale….

I came across an article in the Guardian today (The oceans are warming so fast, they keep breaking scientists’ charts) that is lightly-written, yet sobering to read.

Basically, the problem with climate change/global warming is that the Earth’s systems, in combination, hold more heat energy than they used to. In the past, there have been confusions because air temperatures rose for a while, then stopped rising, and denialists assumed this meant that global warming had stopped, too.

Alas, not so. The heat was still accumulating but in a different place, and when scientists looked in the right place, they found that the air temperatures has stopped rising because the oceans had taken over and were warming instead.

So, to get a more accurate idea of how much global warming is taking place, you need to measure both the rise in air temperatures and the rise in ocean temperatures, and NOAA has been doing that. The combined figures reveal how much more energy is being held at Earth’s surface (give or take a few thousand metres either way) as time passes and climate change really digs its teeth in.

Soberingly, NOAA have had to rescale their ocean temperature graphs, as the figures are now off the scale, and this is not the first time they’ve had to do so.

NOAA’s webpage on ocean heat content is here.

 

Some Reflections on Home Security…..

…Largely inspired by the fact that I’ve just had to break into my own home.

We’ve done a fair bit of work on upgrading our home security over the past few years. All the double-glazing has those (allegedly) high-security locks, the door locks are good enough that when one jammed last year it took a locksmith nearly four hours to get it open again (he came back two days later and replaced the entire locking mechanism to prevent it happening again). We had a six-foot-tall wooden gate fitted at the side of the house (a) to prevent the whippets sailing merrily over the previous three-foot-high gate and (b) to discourage anyone idly ambling round the house to see what’s about in the garden and sheds. The garden is walled or fenced (or has the sheds) all round, mostly to keep the chickens and dogs in but also as a deterrent to random strollers on the property.

Anyway, I came home from a nice night at the cinema with an old friend tonight (the Equaliser, incidentally – we enjoyed it!) and put my key into the front door lock. It wouldn’t turn. I realised almost instantly that my mother must have done as she usually does when locking up at night and left the key in the lock, half-turned. All the same, I checked I had the right key and tried again, because humans always do seem to try the same thing again in the hope that even though it failed miserably last time, magically it’ll work this time.

It didn’t.

Well, how about the back door? I climbed onto the wheelie bin to reach over the gate and pull the top bolt, then lay on the ground and reached underneath to unbolt the bottom bolt. (We need to move the bins further from the gate and find a way to prevent the bolts being shot from the outside, clearly….)

That got me into the back garden. The back door was locked. Now, locking the back door is always my job after I’ve had the dogs out for their last sniff-and-widdle before bed. I admire my mother’s memory for detail but shucks, that was inconvenient….

I paused at this stage to go into the shed and do the last check-and-water of the bunnies, topped up the youngsters’ feed bowl, which was empty (though the rabbits all look very smug and round) and then tried the conservatory, though without much hope since it’s almost always locked even by day. It was locked by night, too.

I tried phoning the house phone, but it’s not that loud and it’s through two shut doors from my mother, who always removes her hearing aids before bed.

I tried yelling through the letterbox, and all I achieved was to stop the dogs barking and start them whining eagerly instead. Not an improvement, though I don’t think Mum would have heard them anyway.

My hand won’t go through the letterbox, we made sure we got one with a fairly narrow slot to prevent burglars trying that. I appreciate the irony.

Tools in the shed? Most of the tools are in the house. What tools I did see, looking around the sheds, weren’t going to help me break into the house, unless I actually broke something.

Finally, I remembered that the kitchen window often isn’t fully latched. To reach it we have to lean over the sink – I can just reach it, but my mother’s an inch or two shorter than she used to be and not quite as fond of climbing on the worktops these days either, so sometimes it doesn’t get latched properly. I checked. The handle was half-up, meaning it was neither willing to open properly at the bottom nor at the side (it’s one of those clever two-settings designs that open both ways) but I was able to prise one corner open about half an inch.

I made a quick trip back to the shed to grab some wire that was on a shelf, twisted a sturdy loop in one end and manouvred the wire through the gap in the corner of the window. After a few trial-and-error moments (snagged the washing up brush, nearly got stuck on the tap….) I managed to lasso the latch, pulled it all the way up and was able to hoick the window open at the bottom. A jump, a hoist and a swivel later, I was being swarmed by a pair of frantic whippets, unable to understand what had taken me so long.

I need to make sure that kitchen window is properly shut in future. I did shut it behind me tonight!

I also need to make a notice to tape to the back of the front door for next time I go out at night: “Take the key out of the door, Mum!”

If I can break in, others can break in and probably more easily, if they’ve had practice (tonight was my debut as a house-breaker). Ideally I should have ended up spending the night kipping in the car on the drive, not climbing in through a ground-floor window after just a couple of minutes with some light-weight wire! Tomorrow by daylight, we need to do some serious security revision…..

Catching up…

After the initial day of ‘oh good, rain, the ground needed it’ we didn’t get dry weather again until yesterday! Talk about over-doing things….

Anyway, in that time the bunnies have produced their litters – Delilah seems to have 9 in the nest, having rejected my offered nestbox, and whenever I open the door of her cage she streaks off into the distance and has to be caught and carried back after I’ve cleaned out, refilled hayrack or whatever. The kits are fat and healthy so she must be looking after them, even if she apparently wants to put yards between herself and that nest!

Trudy has had 7, 4 pink and 3 black – Tigger, the rex buck who fathered Trudy’s litter, is a Harlequin so I’m waiting with great interest to see what colour the kits turn out in the end. Trudy, being an albino, carries a recessive gene that means she doesn’t show any colour – it doesn’t mean she doesn’t have the genes for colours and patterns, just that they don’t show. It’s possible Tigger carries one albino gene that doesn’t show up, in which case the pink kits may turn out white, but then again, he may not have an albino gene to hand on, in which case the pink kits might turn out pale-coloured, depending on what genes Trudy’s tossed into the mix. I can hardly wait to find out! The black ones are very glossy little black sausages so she may have a black gene lurking under her albino surface…. watch this space! Rabbit genetics are an interesting field of study but I’m still only dibbling my toes in the subject.

After all the rain and wind, we got to the allotment yesterday expecting havoc but found relatively little damage. The formerly upstanding artichokes have developed a lean to the south-east after 4 days of non-stop strong north-westerlies and some of the runner beans had blown down (but have now been stood up again). The courgettes had enjoyed our absence and produced nearly 1.5kg of courgettes to prove it, so there’s another 5 jars of that courgette pickle in the cupboard now. We had some with dinner last night and it’s very pleasant indeed – tangy, but not too much so.

We also pulled and ate the first of the carrots from the allotment yesterday – delicious and very satisfying, and lots more yet to come!

The last of the white onions have been brought home and are drying in the boiler shed, so in a few days we’ll weigh them all and see how we did.

We’ve pretty much reached the time of year when we start thinking of mulching the beds as we clear them, and since the tall peas seem to have reached the end of the line, we’ll be clearing the tops into the compost, digging the roots in and then piling 6 inches of rabbit-cage cleanings on top for the winter in the next few days. By spring the worms will have hauled most of it down and improved the soil enormously for us.

Quick Update

Only a brief note tonight – yesterday I drove about 500 miles in total and today I’ve walked three dogs, mucked out two horses, taken care of my own beasties (dogs, rabbits, ferrets), done some gardening, house-sat 5 dogs for a client and this evening I’ve had to dig out someone’s terrier that got stuck under a tree in their garden so I’m feeling a little less than bouncing with energy at the moment! The past couple of days seem to have gone past in a long blur.

Yesterday I spent driving down to Glasgow with my daughter, sitting in on a meeting she had there with a counsellor and then trekking on down the M74 to meet a friend in the Abingdon Services, where we took possession of a couple more New Zealand White rabbits, both does. They’re gifts from another friend whom I helped out with advice when he wanted to get into meat rabbit breeding, so now I have 2 unrelated, placid, well-handled and fine-looking does, 6 and 7 months old, and of course my buck Samson, who’s now a proven stud (at the last count Trudy has 6 good-sized babies in her nest, all looking very healthy and she’s turning out a very laid-back, casually competant sort of mum, which is the best sort). Samson isn’t related to the new does at all, so I have a good solid set of blood-lines for the future.

We got home just short of midnight so the new girls were just popped into a cage for the night. This morning they’re looking quite cheerful, they’re eating and drinking well so I’m very pleased with them.

I can’t say the same for Jack Russell terriers who get stuck in rabbit holes, though….

Return of the Feisty Ferret!

Readers may remember that, almost a month ago, I lost one of my ferrets after bad weather damaged their cage. I had given up all hope for my little jill Fursty but a couple of days ago the village grapevine passed on a rumour that the SSPCA had picked up a stray ferret on the other side of the village.

I phoned the SSPCA (Scottish Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals) and they confirmed that they had indeed picked up a smallish jill ferret at the end of April, and an exchange of emails and photos confirmed that their stray was my lost Fursty! She’d managed to survive without human assistance for two weeks and, apart from a chipped canine tooth, was in perfect health when they collected her. I drove to the Aberdeenshire rehoming centre yesterday and picked her up (leaving a healthy donation in exchange, of course!) and reunited her with her brother. They took one look at each other and started some mutual grooming, then curled up in the nestbox together, just like old times. I’ve never known how long a ferret’s memory is, but certainly they didn’t look at all as if they’d forgotten each other!

Sleepy morning ferrets!

Sleepy morning ferrets!

This morning they did their normal yawn-stretch-slither routine out of the cage when I opened it. Ferrets are not natural daytime creatures – they’re most active at dawn and dusk with a natural propensity for tunnels and dark corners. Once out of the cage they perk up and play while I clean and refresh food and water – I keep some old sections of clay pipe lying around for them to scamper through and around.

Tag in pipes - a favourite ferret game.

Tag in pipes – a favourite ferret game.

Once they’re awake they usually scurry about examining anything they can find, including any pot plants nearby.They like digging and plantpots give them an ideal place to excavate.

Gardening tips by ferrets....

Gardening tips by ferrets….

I’m glad to report that despite their spirited attempt to repot the rosemary, the plant survived!

Back from the Wilds

Something of a break from the blog over the past week – I was away bushcrafting with the local BCUK group over a long weekend, then got back only for my ferrets to escape when their cage was blown open in a night of gales. One ferret, Loony, turned up the following day in the shed by the chicken run (thankfully, not in the chicken run!) but the other, my little blonde jill Fursty, is still missing and, sadly, probably gone for ever. Stray ferrets don’t survive well in the wild – they try to play with strange dogs and cats, or stand in the road wondering what the funny lights are until too late.

As if that wasn’t enough to be getting on with, my daughter’s flitting about the country looking at universities ready for the coming autumn term. Today she was in Dundee.

Getting back to some sanity and sense, I spent some time on the allotment today sowing alfalfa and white clover – both are good for the soil, with nitrogen-fixing bacteria living amongst their roots, and both will also make very nutritious hay for the bunnies in due course. They’ll help to provide ground cover to smother out weeds and reduce evaporation from the soil, acting as a living mulch.

The dwarf peas I sowed a while back are now up and ready to plant out; half of them will be going into the deep beds in the garden to use as mange tout, the other half will go to the allotment and grow on a little further as early podding peas. The maincrop peas, a tall variety called Lord Leicester, aren’t as far forward so they’ll be staying in the potting shed a little longer.

It’s still quite early in the year here and we had a frost just the other night so, when the peas go out, each will get its own personal cloche. My daughter drinks a lot of fruit squash so we save up the empty plastic bottles, then cut off the bottoms and push them into the soil over seedlings, providing each one with its own miniature greenhouse which helps to retain moisture, catch heat and ward off any frost.

I’ll post a picture once they’re all in and “bottled”, which should be Friday. Tomorrow’s another hectic day……

Cryoconites

The other night I watched a documentary called Chasing Ice, a quite remarkable story of the lengths a photographer went to in order to record the retreating glaciers of the world (and is still going to, given that Extreme Ice Survey are now setting up cameras in the Antarctic to complement their Arctic and Montanan coverage!)

As a testament to courage and passion in pursuing an avocation, Chasing Ice would deserve a watch. As a record of the extraordinary way in which the cryosphere (the world’s ice) is quietly vanishing away at the moment, it deserves a watch. As a memory of vanishing landscapes, which we will probably never see again in our lifetimes (ice takes a long time to form glaciers!) I felt that I had to buy a copy of the DVD in order to preserve a piece of our heritage.

Amongst the stunning scenery and the superb cinematography, I was struck by something quite extraordinary. At one point, the term “cryoconites” was mentioned. I looked it up. In general, I don’t rely on Wikipedia for information – it’s a very useful place to start off with a basic description and then I chase the links up to get to the peer-reviewed science (which usually goes slightly over my head but I’m trying to improve myself!) What really caught my attention with the cryoconites was that here, in the middle of millions of square miles of ice, were lifeforms that could survive on dust and sunlight, and which had the power to melt the ice-sheets.

Imagine that. Microscopic algae and dust, yet they are changing their environment around themselves. How? Because they’re dark in colour. It’s not even something they’re doing deliberately  – it’s just because they happen to be dark-coloured by their nature. Dark objects absorb more heat from the sun than light coloured ones do (which could also be described as dark coloured objects reflect less light than pale ones do) and because of that, each of these tiny balls of dust-and-algae warms the ice on which it sits until they’re growing in a pool of water.

I find that quite amazing, to consider the effect these algal colonies are having on the planet. Too small to affect the environment? Not one bit.

It’s also quite hopeful – surely if they can change their environment without even trying, we should be able to achieve something amazing too – if we put our combined efforts into mitigating climate change.