Monday, June 3, 2013

Yellow roses

The chalk grassland of the White Cliffs is awash with wildflowers in summer. One of those flowers, characteristic of chalk grassland, is common rock rose; the beautiful Helianthemum nummularium.

Rock rose, Helianthemum nummularium

It's not a rose of course. The common name 'rock rose' is  misleading as these dainty flowers are unrelated to roses, but are in the Cistaceae family. Common rock rose has 5 petals, crumply and crinkly like tissue-paper Cistus flowers.

The dazzling little yellow flowers of rock-rose are on display from late spring to late summer. It's also a very small evergreen shrub so sharp-eyes will discover its leaves even in mid-winter. It prefers to grow on chalky ground, in the sun, especially cliffs and rocks, so the White Cliffs of Dover are nigh on perfect habitat.

Rock rose, Helianthemum nummularium

Not only is it gorgeous for us to look at, its long flowering period makes it an important nectar source for bees. It's the food plant for some species of butterfly; brown argus, green hairstreak and silver-studded blue (the latter being very rare). Larval food plants of UK butterflies are listed here.

Green hairstreak. Copyright Gail Hampshire.
Used under a CC-BY 2.0 licence. Original on Flickr here.

Silver-studded blue. Copyright Gail Hampshire
Used under a CC-BY 2.0 licence. Original on Flickr here.

Rock rose, Helianthemum nummularium, 

The photo above shows the back of the flower with the 5 sepals characteristic of the Cistaceae family; 2 little outer green ones and 3 larger, inner stripey ones.

Helianthemum is from the Greek helios, sun and anthemon, flower, so sun-flower. Nummularium is derived from the Latin 'nummulus', the diminutive of 'coin-shaped'. The bright yellow flowers do resemble little gold coins in the grass.

Friday, March 1, 2013

Murder Mystery at South Foreland

"St Margaret's Bay ... lies a little to the northward of the South Foreland Lighthouse, that notable landmark with which every cross-Channel passenger is familiar ..."

And here is that 'notable' landmark, atop the White Cliffs of Dover, taken earlier this year from a cross-Channel ferry.

Those words were written by J.S. Fletcher (1863-1935) a murder mystery writer from the 'Golden Age of Detective Fiction' (1920s and 30s). A Yorkshireman by birth, he first studied law before becoming a journalist, poet and historical novelist. Over his long career he wrote an outrageous 237 books! He was a hugely popular, successful writer in his time, but I bet you've never heard of him. Even in his native Yorkshire he's virtually unknown and isn't even listed on the Wikipedia page of writers from Yorkshire. That should be rectified.

Picture from gadetection

I'd never heard of J.S. Fletcher either, until I came across a book by chance, whilst surfing the internet. The South Foreland Murder was published in 1930 when Fletcher was in his late 60s and it's long out of print. But I knew the moment I saw it that I wanted to read it. Kent libraries didn't have a copy (shame) so I applied for an interlibrary loan. This is the only picture of an 'original' dust cover I can find.

Picture from Ebay seller pagesrevisited

Now, that's a dramatic dust cover but I'm not sure the artist had actually read the book. The murder weapon was, as I recall, a gun. Oops! The book above is the American edition by Alfred Knopf, Fletcher's US publisher. Many of the second hand books I found online were in the US. Happily, I didn't have to wait for my interlibrary loan because a kindly book fairy procured me my very own copy, published by London-based publisher Herbert Jenkins.

I won't say much about the plot in case you get to read it! But Dashiell Hammett, reviewing the book for the New York Evening Post in 1930, was rather dismissive. I suppose he read a lot of detective novels. (Mr Hammet is, you may recall, the creator of hard-nosed private detective Sam Spade in the The Maltese Falcon.)

"THE SOUTH FORELAND MURDER does not get away a bit from the later Fletcher formula ... ... ... The police and the solicitor, who tells the story, gather a little information here, a little there, slowly, tediously. Some of the reasons for the information's having been withheld are pretty inadequate. Presently - and too early for my taste - there is no mystery; there is simply a search for the guilty; then the guilty are found and there is a tragic ending, but no surprise."

I do tend to agree with Hammett. There's little characterisation (some of the lumpy characters made me cringe a bit) and yes, perhaps the unravelling of the mystery is a tad speedy, but for all that it's a ripping yarn. The plot being set in an area I know well was certainly a pull for me, and apart from the curious misspelling of Guston as Gurton, it was simple to follow the action using an old map.

But it wasn't just being a local murder mystery that made this book enjoyable. It was the sensuous pleasure of holding and reading a tired old hardback; the comfortable font size, the slightly tingly feel of the cloth binding, the 'old book' smell, the way the pages stayed open, the light weight, all these things were reminiscent of the old books I used to read as a child.

A bargain for 2/6!

President Woodrow Wilson was allegedly a J.S. Fletcher fan, having read The Middle Temple Murder while convalescing. The President's fulsome praise did sales no harm at all, especially in the US.

Picture from Calderdale Council

While trundling around the internet I also discovered that Fletcher wrote a short story about a lighthouse called 'The Lighthouse of the Shivering Sand'. Coincidentally it's recently been adapted for theatre by Nobby Dimon, founder of the North Country Theatre and is on tour now till early December. Drat it being so far away.

I beg one final brief diversion before I finish. Inside the front cover of my book is this label for Bricknell's Circulating Library.

This book was published in 1930, which seems rather a late date for a private circulating library. In the 1930s with the advent of the paperback, books became more widely and cheaply available to the general public. Amazingly Bricknell's of Bodmin is still trading 80 years later. They're still a family business and still have a shop in Fore Street; Bricknell's Stationery.

Who'd have thought an accidental find on Google would lead to such an interesting and satisfying few days, not only reading an old book but finding out so many things tangential to it (and starting a new blog).

South Foreland really does look the perfect place for a murder mystery

JS Fletcher 'The Middle Temple Murder'. 1920. Project Gutenberg Australia have an ebook here and it's free on Kindle here.
JS Fletcher 'The Lighthouse of Shivering Sands' Available as an ebook here on Project Gutenberg Australia)
Dashiell Hammett 'The Crime Wave' New York Evening Post, September 20th 1930 here
Don Herron 'Hammett - More Book Reviews' on 'Up & Down these Mean Streets' here
A brief biography of JS Fletcher here
Drew R Thomas 'The Golden Age: England 1918-1930here
Martin Wainwright 'The demented lighthouse of Yorkshire's busiest writer' The Guardian 24th September 2012 here
Editorial 'How fame eluded a man of many words' Yorkshire Post 8th May 2006 here.

Monday, February 25, 2013

For what porpoise?

We walked the length of Sandwich Bay this weekend on the Beached Bird Survey. There were few bird carcasses to record and little evidence of oil pollution. Well and good. It was bitingly cold in the NE wind, so I'm glad we walked the route from Prince's Golf Club towards Deal and not vice versa, with the wind and sleet beating at our backs rather than on our faces.

Sandwich Bay in winter is a rather forbidding place. Flat and pretty bleak, there's no hiding place from whatever the weather wants to throw at you. Apart from the usual flotsam and jetsam of the tideline; plastic, seaweed and lots of whelk eggsacs blowing about in the wind like tumbleweed, there was little to see on the shore, until we came across this.

It was once a harbour porpoise, a protected marine mammal. This carcass was about 2½ feet long.  

Harbour porpoises are delightful, endearing mammals, which feed on small fish, like sprats (as do I and buy them from the local fishermen on Deal beach). The word porpoise is derived from the Latin porcus, pig and piscus, fish. Although I don't see the resemblance myself.

Natural History Museum.Taken in 2007 by Hy'Shqa on Flickr. 
Used under a CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 license. Original here

It's a species, as its name suggests, of coastal waters, found in the cool North Atlantic, including the UK and northern European coastline.

Range map for harbour porpoise from Wikipedia. 
Used under a Creative Commons license. Original here

Here's what an intact dead harbour porpoise looks like. This one was washed up on the US north eastern seaboard so it's a harbor porpoise.

Harbour porpoise washed up on the US coast (I believe) in March 2012 by chester08057 on Flickr. 
Used under a CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 license. Original here

And here's the Sandwich Bay porpoise; sans flippers, sans dorsal fin, sans tail fin. It's also had its belly cut open; the intestines were hanging out on the other side. I don't need to be a CSI to know this animal has been intentionally mutilated. I can only hope it was post-mortem.

I suspect this was done at sea and the body tossed overboard. Here are close ups of some of the injuries: sliced off dorsal fin & tail fin.

I'd not heard of marine mammals being mutilated like this, but found a reference to exactly this type of incident on the Dutch coast (Wietse Van Der Werf, 2009 writing for Sea Shepherd). The mutilation is believed to be by fishermen to hide evidence of the illegal killing of harbour porpoises; the cutting and gutting being a crude attempt to make the carcass sink to the sea bed. As over a 100 similarly mutilated corpses were washed up on the Dutch coast, this doesn't seem to be very effective method of hiding illegal activity.

We don't make it easy for marine mammals. Not only have we poisoned their food with toxic chemicals. We overfish reducing available food. Plastic in all shapes and sizes pollutes the sea. We dredge the sea bed and destroy habitats. And we're noisy. The Channel is one of the busiest shipping lanes in the world. Porpoises are social animals and hunt using sonar. How do they cope with the cacophony of sound in the Channel? As if all that is not enough they might also be injured directly by boats and other leisure craft.

And of course, they may get entangled in fishing nets. A porpoise needs to come to the surface to breathe so can drown trapped in nets. If accidentally caught, the correct procedure is to cut the animal from the net carefully and release it unharmed back into the sea. Not, cut up the animal, mutilate it and then chuck it back. The more responsible thing to do is to fit nets with sonic pingers to warn animals of danger so they don't get caught in the first place.

I believe the Sandwich Bay porpoise either drowned and was then mutilated to hide the fact it was by-catch, or, to save damaging the nets, was killed and mutilated. This is to keep profits high and prevent discovery. Whatever happened, it stinks.

How do I know the fish I eat is being caught sustainably? How do I know how fishermen behave if they accidentally capture a porpoise? Even a short walk down the coast indicates we use the sea as a big dumping ground for all manner of rubbish. Out of sight, out of mind.

In 1991 the UK signed the Agreement on the Conservation of Small Cetaceans of the Baltic, North East Atlantic, Irish and North Seas; ASCOBANS. Signatories oblige themselves to protect the habitats of small cetaceans, collect data for scientific studies, decrease pollution and spread information. Is this agreement being enforced?

So what can I do to make a difference for porpoises?
1. Buy fish only from sustainable fisheries. Make informed decisions. Use the Marine Conservation Society buyer's guide

2. Don’t pollute the sea. I don’t drop litter but there's no lack of litter for me to pick up. Take a bag when walking on the beach. Apparently plastic bags can look like squid so it’s good to get these items off the beach. It's a tiny effort compared to the problem, but if we all did it…

3. Support marine NGOs. Join the Marine Conservation Society (MCS) and support Sea Shepherd, Hugh's Fish Fight, British Divers Marine Life Rescue...

4. If you find a live stranded cetacean, call for help. The Coastguard is on 112. The British Divers Marine Life Rescue Hotline is 01825 765546 during office hours, 07787 433412 out of office hours. Put these numbers in your mobile phone. Note the place, state of the tide and any injuries you can see without getting close. The rescue team will tell you what to do. Always make sure your mobile is fully charged before taking a walk down the coast!

5. Report dead cetaceans to the Coastguard. Animals can be autopsied to find cause of death. I didn't know this when I was out on Sandwich Bay so reported it today. And I can report they emailed me back within minutes. You can rely on HM Coastguard. The email for reports is or your nearest CG station.

6. You can report any marine mammal sighting online. The Marine Sightings Network is pretty comprehensive (and not just for cetaceans). There's also the Natural History Museum Stranding Project with reporting info here (although I'm having a dastardly time trying to read the form with Adobe!). And in that regard it's wise to learn some ID skills. A camera is indispensable of course.

7. If you do go out to sea to watch marine mammals, do so with respect. Check trip organisers follow an approved code of conduct.

8. Raise awareness & celebrate the 11th International Day of the Baltic Harbour Porpoise on May 19 2013.

ASCOBANS webpage. Species leaflet here. How to make a difference here

Wietse Van Der Werf (March 17, 2009) Fishermen Eager to Hide Evidence of Illegal Porpoise Killings. Sea Shepherd International.

Arne Bjorge and Krystal Tolley (2008) 'Harbor porpoise, Phocoena phocoena' in Encyclopedia of Marine Mammals. Academic Press, 2nd Edn. Pages 530-32 available on Google Books here.