Wednesday 25 July 2018

The Big Butterfly Count 2018

This summer has already brought us more sunshine than we Brits are used to, but that's not the only good thing. The ferocious cold snap we endured back in March, combined with the now settled weather we have been experiencing for the last couple of months, has created the right conditions for butterflies to flourish!

Beginning 20 July, The Big Butterfly Count is a nationwide survey organised by the Butterfly Conservation, that's aimed at helping to asses the health of the environment, encouraging us to spend 15 minutes at a time – whether that be daily, weekly, or whenever you can – counting butterflies, and submitting the sightings online. 

This time of year is the optimum time to hold this survey, because most butterflies are at the adult stage of their lifecycle, and so are more likely to be seen. 

So, why is it important to count butterflies?

These insects react very quickly to changes in their environment, which makes them excellent biodiversity indicators. A decline in butterfly numbers is an early warning sign for other wildlife losses. It can be viewed as even more of a crucial practice this year, because if the hot conditions continue and create a drought, the results could be catastrophic: plants will wither and all manner of insects will die due to lack of food.

Likened to taking the pulse of nature, counting butterflies can assist in identifying trends in species that can aid the Butterfly Conservation in planning how to protect butterflies from extinction, as well as gain a better understanding of the effects of climate change on wildlife. 

And it's not just the ecosystem that can benefit from this activity. The mental health charity Mind says that spending time in nature can help alleviate human problems such as depression and anxiety. 

As President of the Butterfly Conservation, Sir David Attenborough actively encourages the public to take part in the Big Butterfly Count, saying that spending time with nature offers "precious breathing space away from the stresses and strains of modern life."

The Big Butterfly count officially runs from 20 July to 12 August, but that doesn't mean you have to stop looking out for these wonderful insects when it ends. Whether you head to the local park, walk along your favourite woodland trek, or are simply spending an afternoon in the garden, get counting those butterflies!

Friday 20 July 2018

King (combe) for a day

Dorset is a beautiful place, particularly at this time of year. The UNESCO World Heritage Jurassic Coast is one of the best known areas of outstanding beauty here, but the rolling hills, vales, and rivers of the Dorset countryside are just as stunning, if less well known to those who follow the tourist trail.

It’s true to say that many of us (myself included) who live in ‘destination locations’ don’t get out and about to enjoy and experience the places right on our doorstep as much as seasonal visitors do. Often, it’s simply because we’ve become so familiar with them as part of a regular commute or other journey.

As someone with a lifelong interest in science and nature, and learning about and conserving our flora and fauna, I’ve been a supporter of Dorset Wildlife Trust (DWT) for a number of years. This means I get to hear of places and ‘things’ in the area that are, often, not only important from a scientific and conservatorial perspective, but are also simply beautiful places to visit or see.

The Kingcombe Centre Garden and Orchard, viewed from the Living Van.

The Living Van.
One such place has been on my radar for many years: The Kingcombe Centre, set in Kingcombe Meadows, a 450 acre DWT nature reserve, amidst winding country lanes, meandering rivers, and unspoilt countryside. As well as offering all the things a nature reserve could, the Centre also provides educational courses, workshops, and accommodation – and the latter really is something special.

DWT’s Kingcombe Centre has a holiday cottage and a B&B, but the subject of today’s blog is something much more interesting – the Living Van. This fully restored road-worker's van, or ‘Shepherds Hut,’ is set in Kingcombe Meadows, at the top of the Centre’s orchard and organic gardens.

Secluded, but not too remote, the Van is a wonderful place to camp-out in style. Set in a fenced-off, gated area, the hut sleeps two adults – and our German Shepherd, Indie – in comfort.

The perfect tranquil spot for
a bit of R&R.
Whilst it's very-much old school, it does have some mod cons; electricity, lamps, and even a small log burner with fuel. Oh, and there are cups, wine glasses, plates and cutlery, so all you need to do is bring your food, flannel, and your toothbrush, some food for Fido … and a bottle of something bubbly!

Raise a glass to the Kingcombe
Centre's Living Van.
Inside, it’s a fantastic, comfortable, and private place to retreat from the scorching sun. There’s even a concise selection of books on local flowers, grasses, birds, butterflies, insects … all the things you’re likely to see whilst staying or strolling at Kingcombe.

But you won’t want to stay inside if the weather is fine, so there’s a campfire, a bench big enough for a family gathering, and chairs and log seats, so you can invite your friends for a BBQ around the campfire.

A few yards walk from the Van, at the bottom of the orchard, is a private shower block for the use of Van occupants, and two toilet cubicles, along with fresh running water (don't forget to damp-down after your campfire). And, if you want to say farewell in style, a full breakfast at the Centre's CafĂ©, a few steps from the orchard and showers, is included – and very nice it is, too!

The Living Van is believed to have originally come from Eddison, a haulage factory that thrived in Dorchester from 1868, and would have been paired with a steam roller, of which hundreds were built at the factory. For the road workers, it was the perfect combination of convenience and comfort, and you could take your accommodation with you to the next job.

Indie the GSD felt right at home by the campfire.
A Living Van is a little different from a shepherd’s hut, although the two are very similar. Living Vans have the wheels set under the body, and the door is centred on the steering plate end. The body was built of tongue-and-groove, while shepherd's huts tended to be covered with corrugated iron.

Plankbridge, the company that restored the van, believes the van began its life early in the 1900s, and spent many years behind a steam engine, up until the 1950s. After its road working life, it became a game keeper’s hut, on an estate in North Dorset, before being moved to mid-Dorset’s Greenhill Down, in the 1970s, by the then owner, Angela Hughes. A period of use as ‘holiday accommodation’ by Angela and her two young children was followed by a stint as a base for conservation volunteers working on Greenhill Down nature reserve.

By the late 1990s, it sat quietly unused, disappearing into the vegetation. Greenhill Down and the van were donated to DWT in 2004, and work began on bringing the van back to life. Sadly, Angela died in 2009, but had had a long association with DWT: she received an OBE for her services to conservation.

Plankbridge’s work was painstaking, and the company went to great lengths to adhere to traditional design and techniques, replacing like for like where possible, and retaining any parts that could be reused. The result is a stunning piece of living industrial heritage and social history.

So, aside from DWT’s truly amazing work helping to conserve and protect wildlife, educate and enlighten, and give everyone safe access to our wonderful wild heritage, it also offers a magical, marvellous place to stay, under the trees and stars.

Head over to DWT's website to see just a little of the amazing work it does, in conservation, awareness, education, and more. Visit its shop, support a project, or – better still – join DWT to support all the vital work the charity is doing. And, if you’re feeling a little fried and frazzled, or want to escape to the country, you’d be hard pressed to find a better place to relax, unwind, and get back to nature.

Don't forget to follow and like Dorset Wildlife Trust on Facebook and Twitter, too.

The Living Van is perfect for two people and doggy companion, but the roomy bench and seating area, and a campfire in easy reach, makes for a great place for an outdoor gathering with friends.

If you've stayed at the Living Van, or if you know of another great place to stay outdoors, comment below, or get in touch and let us know at and you could find your story on our blog!

Wednesday 11 July 2018

All about Zena

If you are local to H&H HQ, you may already be aware of the great work that The Donkey Sanctuary does for these friendly animals. Having started off as a dream to help save donkeys in distress this charity near Sidmouth, Devon, now has multiple centres across the UK, and works globally to help thousands of donkeys. 

Meet the delightful Zena!

As with many animal charities, a large amount of their funding is obtained through adoptions and sponsorships and our publisher, Jude, has has adopted Zena, a wonderfully sweet donkey at the Sidmouth sanctuary. Zena's start in life was tough; born three weeks early, she suffered from paralysis in her back legs. However, after a lot of veterinary care, love and late-night bottle-feeds, she overcame the odds and is now full of life!

Donkeys are intelligent creatures, and like to take their time getting used to new things. Having only ever known love and kindness from those who care for her at the sanctuary, Zena trusts humans, and new experiences don't frighten her. One of the many things that the sanctuary likes to do is to keep donkeys challenged and engaged, just as they would be in the wild. Introducing Zena to an obstacle course for the first time, she demonstrated her usual courage and intelligence. After a brief hesitation, she stepped directly over the raised pole, one leg at a time, with a little hop to finish off!

Zena taking on the obstacle course 

"It's important that she doesn't become bored by doing the same things every day. That's why we constantly try to come up with new activities to enrich the lives of our donkeys. We also encourage different volunteers and grooms to help take care of Zena and her friends. It's good for the donkeys to get used to small differences in approach and handling." – Rosie, one of the grooms at the Donkey Sanctuary.

All donations received go towards a wide variety of projects, from buying new equipment to helping care for the donkeys, to funding Donkey-Assisted Therapy programmes across the UK and Europe. The Donkey Sanctuary has just opened a new veterinary hospital at Brookfield Farm in Devon, thanks to the help of all those generous enough to donate to this heart-warming charity.

To see how you can help support the incredible work that The Donkey Sanctuary carries out, be sure to visit the website; we're sure you won't be able to resist adopting a donkey!


Tuesday 3 July 2018

Bees who buzz ...

Bees are fantastic creatures, and are a vital part of our ecosystem. In today's post, we're bringing you two stories about these buzzy little creatures; the first is about how remarkable these insects really are ... 

Latest research, conducted by the University of Bristol, reveals not only that bees can identify the shape, colour, perfume and even electrical charge of flowers, by also that bees know how the concentration of a scent varies across a flower's surface.

"[This study shows that] bees can tell the difference between flowers where the only difference is their spatial arrangement of scent – and that suggest they could use this information to make their foraging more efficient," says Dr David Lawson, co-author of the research. 

Further to this research, scientists have found that bees appear able to apply what they have learnt from patterns of scent to patterns of colour, suggesting that these small but very significant critters might be even smarter than first at thought.

The research undertaken by the University of Bristol and Queen Mary University of London centered around 31 bumblebees, and how they exposed them one at a time to plastics discs in which an array of tiny wells were filled with peppermint oil to create either a cross or a square pattern.

One group of bees encountered a sugar solution placed in the centre of the discs with a circular pattern of peppermint oil; the other group found the sweet rewards in discs with a cross-shaped pattern. Meanwhile, water was placed on the 'flowers' with the alternative pattern to those bearing the treat.

Once the bees drank from the sugar-bearing 'flowers' on more than eight out of ten consecutive occasions, the team deemed them trained and let them lose, one at a time, on another set of ten 'flowers.' Half of these had a peppermint cross pattern, and half had a circular pattern, with water placed in the centre of all of them.

The team found that the bees trained to head for flowers with a circular scent pattern preferentially spent time drinking on such flowers, even though there was no sugary treat, while those trained to go to the cross pattern preferred to drink from flowers with a peppermint cross.

Then, the team presented a group of trained bees with two sorts of unscented paper discs bearing a sugar drink, one with red dots arranged in a cross, the other with the dots arranged in a circle, and watched where the bees went on their first ten landings. The results showed that bees trained to bumble off to a peppermint-scented cross were more likely to choose to visit the cross-shaped array of red dots.

How un-bee-lieveable! Now, from the other side of the pond, comes this story from Ford, about how the company is going to do be doing its bit to help with the conservation of bees.

Back in June, Ford launched a global beekeeping programme, with six new honeybee hives at its Dearborn World Headquarters, in support of honeybee populations, the local ecosystem, and gardening and farming communities. 

"Sustainability is more than improving fuel economy and reducing waste," says Kim Pittel, Ford group vice president, sustainability, environment and safety engineering. "It's about improving the environment we live in for all, and that includes honeybees, pollinators and the ecosystems that depend on them."

According to the nonprofit organisation, Pollinator Partnership, honeybees are essential to the world's food supply, and are in dire need of help. 

The six new hives will be situated inside a walking path extension north of Ford World Headquarters. Ford employees who initiated the programme will serve as beekeepers managing the hives. This effort builds on Ford's beekeeping initiative at the historic Rouge factory in 2016. 

Ford designers created special hive shells, with over a dozen design concepts submitted, spanning a variety of formats and employing numerous materials ranging from wood, plant matter, acrylic, ceramics, mill foam, fibreglass, and metal. In the end, the concept of Chris Westfall, a designer of vehicle interiors, was chosen for its overall benefits to colony health. Titled, "Honeycomb Sail," the design features two sails that wrap around each beehive to provide a peaceful space away from the elements. The design takes cues both from bee wings and a thick drop of honey. One side allows for easy access by the beekeeper and the other entrance is sized just for the bees. 

Ford beekeepers will provide data on the 360,000 honeybees expected to inhabit all six hives, as the colonies grow to their full potential of 60,000 bees per hive by the height of summer, to the Sentinel Apiary Program, a collective of nearly 70 beekeepers from 26 states who track honeybee health and diseases nationally.

There are many ways in which you can get involved at home with helping the bees; a quick internet search will bring up a plethora of ideas, so you can get started straight away!