Monthly Archives: June 2023

A Quick Visit to the Garden Centre

Common carder bumblebee on Cirsium rivulare var atropurpureum

Dear Readers, regular followers of the blog will know that when I go to the garden centre, I am always led by the bees and what they’re feeding on. And on this lovely sunny day they were out in force. First up, the common carders were all over this rather lovely thistle, which as far as I know is only known by its Latin name – I’ve tried to grow it several times but it doesn’t like either my sunny front garden or my shady back garden, so I’ve given up for now. I am growing some melancholy thistles though, so let’s see how they do.

Mason bee (???) on Rosanne geranium

This little bee was something of a challenge – superficially it looks like a common carder but it’s rather less stocky in build. Species geraniums like ‘Rosanne’ are excellent for pollinators, as opposed to the cheap and cheerful red geraniums that dangle from balconies and are no use to bees at all. I would love to start a campaign to persuade pubs to change their hanging baskets and windowboxes from petunias and geraniums to something more bee-friendly but of course the plants would also have to be robust, drought-proof and long-flowering, so I do see the problem. Maybe this pub in Muswell Hill had the right idea….

Anyhow, back to the garden centre. Scabious is always a big favourite with the bees, and this bumblebee was thoroughly enjoying the nectar.


Someone mentioned Salvia as being their favourite plant family, and the garden centre was absolutely full of them – so many varieties, and so different! The bees always seem most attracted to the blue and purple ones in my experience, and this variety (new to me) was a particular magnet.

Salvia ‘Mystic Spires’


And finally, it was all happening by the Nemesia. I never think of it being particularly attractive to bees but clearly I was wrong – our little friend the four-banded flower bee was patrolling a huge patch of the flowers and defending them against bumblebees four times his size, very impressive. It might all appear to be idyllic in the garden but there are ferocious battles going on – this bee is hoping both to mate with any female four-banded flower bees who turn up, and to make sure that no interlopers take over his patch. It’s hard work when there’s so much to do in the way of reproduction, and so little time to get it done in.

Bee to the left of the central flower spike (in front of the wooden slat)

Bee taking a second away from guard duty to have a feed (centre, purple flower)

And so, dear Readers, you might be wondering what I bought, and you might be surprised that the answer is, on this occasion, absolutely nothing. And the reason is that shortly I will be off on an adventure (no, not a heart operation, no one is that quick), and I will be telling you all about it very soon. In the meantime, this was an admiration and reconnaissance visit only, and it took some self-control, I can tell you.

For those of you who live in North London, just a heads up that this is the Sunshine Garden Centre, not far from Bounds Green tube station, and a real delight – the staff are always so helpful, the range of plants is great, and for anyone over 60 you can get 10% off. Plus there’s a café which is always a bonus. Do drop in if you’re in the vicinity.

Little Things….

Dear Readers, following the news about my heart earlier this week I have decided to make a point of popping out into the garden to see what’s going on every day, instead of sitting hunched over my laptop like a vulture. And today, I was amazed by the number of house sparrows who seem to be visiting the garden. Earlier this year I would have said that I got maybe 3 or 4 occasionally, but today there must have been a flock of twenty, including a couple of fledglings. I am so glad to be able to make them welcome.

Blurry baby on the yew shrub to the left!

Furthermore, I love the subtle colours on the back of the male sparrows, in their shades of chestnut and charcoal and fawn.

And look at those little grey caps! If you ever see a sparrow with a brown cap you’re looking at a tree sparrow, which is even more exciting if you’re interested in relative rarities, though house sparrows are on the Red List as we know.

The teasel is coming on a treat, and the very first flowers are starting to appear. Soon a whole ring of pale lilac flowers will decorate each ‘bloom’.

First flowers!

How architectural they are, these flowerheads! They are masterpieces of geometry.

Elsewhere in the (admittedly extremely overgrown) garden, the first of the greater willowherb flowers has appeared…

My ‘dwarf’ buddleia (now nine feet tall) is coming into bloom…

And the hebe next door is putting out its lilac firecracker flowers, much loved by the bees.

And so, it was well-worth popping outside to see what was going on, as it always is. I heartily recommend it!

Wednesday Weed – Ribbed Melilot

Ribbed melilot (Melilotus officinalis)

Dear Readers, you might remember that I found this plant in a tree-pit a few days ago and so I thought I’d do some digging and find out a bit more about it. I suspect that it has arrived in a wildflower seed mix, but it arrived in the UK in about 1835, probably via North America, though as it is originally from south east Europe it may well have made its own way here over time. Ribbed melilot is a member of the pea and bean family (Fabaceae), and there are several similar species – tall melilot is, well, taller, and then there’s a white version, called imaginatively white melilot. All of them are popular with pollinators, but ribbed melilot in particular has a high nectar content – honeybee hives are sometimes placed close to melilot fields, and can produce up to 200 pounds of honey per year. 

I keep changing my mind about my favourite plant family – one day it’s the carrot family, with Queen Anne’s lace and wild carrot and angelica and all those other fluffy, useful flowers. Then it’s the brassicas, the origin of so many foodplants and with such useful plants for insects as well, such as garlic mustard for the orange-tip butterflies. On balance it’s probably the peas and beans, because of their variety, and the way that they improve the soil, but it’s quite possible that I’ll change my mind again. Do you have a favourite type of plant? Do share. There are so many candidates, all contributing to the ecosystem in their own particular way.

Red-tailed bumblebee (Bombus lapidarius) on ribbed melilot (Photo by By Ivar Leidus – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0,

Also known as sweet clover, the melilots are also known as sweet clover, and contain a chemical called coumarin which is responsible for the sweet smell of hay – although the odour is delicious, the taste is bitter, and it’s thought that coumarin acts as a deterrent to grazing animals. However, the chemical can be converted to a potent anticoagulant by some fungi, which can cause sweet clover disease if cattle are fed the plant in silage or hay. However, the anticoagulant is also used as a rodenticide, which always sounds to me like a particularly unpleasant way for a rat or mouse to die. 

Photo by By AnRo0002 – Own work, CC0,

Before the advent of nitrogen fertilisers, ribbed melilot was used as a green manure, and was ploughed back into fields so that its nitrogen content could improve the soil. These days, the plant is also used to ‘clean’ soils contaminated by dioxins, and it is also very drought-tolerant, a great feature in these uncertain times.

Various creatures eat the seeds of the melilot species, including game birds such as partidge and pheasant, and a whole raft of tiny moths and butterflies. The caterpillars of some Essex Skipper (Thymelicus lineola) butterflies seem to have taken a shine  to the plant, as have the larvae of the Clouded Yellow, a migratory butterfly that sometimes crops up on the coast, and the larvae of the Grass Eggar, a rare moth found pretty much exclusively on the south and west coasts. The moth is discreet and furry, but the caterpillar is clearly something of a dandy.

The caterpillar of the Grass Eggar moth (Lasiocampa trifolii) (see below for attribution)

Adult grass eggar moth (Photo By Donkey shot – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

And finally, for a poem, how about this one by Sappho? I am not sure that the translation quite does it justice (if it was me I would certainly be doing something about that garden grot, which has quite different connotations these days). Melilot  crops up a lot in her poetry (it is originally a southern European plant, as we’ve noted), with its hay-scented perfume, and flowers in general (and roses in particular) stand for female desire. Phaon was said to be Sappho’s (male) lover, and she was supposed to have thrown herself into the sea for the love of him. It’s all very confusing when, nowadays, we associate Sappho much more with her love for women, but then who said that humans had to be consistent? If you know more about Sappho and her love life than I do, fire away!

Golden pulse grew on the shore,
Ferns along the hill,
And the red cliff roses bore
Bees to drink their fill;

Bees that from the meadows bring
Wine of melilot,
Honey-sups on golden wing
To the garden grot.

But to me, neglected flower,
Phaon will not see,
Passion brings no crowning hour,
Honey nor the bee.

Photo Credit

The caterpillar photo above has the following attribution –  No machine-readable author provided. Svdmolen assumed (based on copyright claims). – No machine-readable source provided. Own work assumed (based on copyright claims)., CC BY 2.5,


Dear Readers, as you might remember I have been having tests over the past few months, following a persistent cough – I’ve had a CT scan and various ultrasounds, with an echocardiogram last Sunday. Everything has come back negative except one. The CT scan picked up that there was something ‘dodgy’ about my heart – there seemed to be fluid around the heart, and the aorta seemed to be dilated. None of these things exactly filled me with cheer, and the echocardiogram doctor seemed to think that there was definitely something amiss.

Although this hasn’t been confirmed yet, she thinks that what I have is a congenital heart defect – where in the diagram above it says ‘tricuspid valve’ (meaning ‘three leaves’), I only have a bicuspid valve. For the early part of life this usually causes no problems, but as you get older it can become less and less efficient, so the blood may leak, and the aorta grows to compensate. The only symptoms that I have are breathlessness, which I was putting down to two years of sedentary lockdown, and rather too many cakes (ahem). However, it might seem that the cakes are not to blame at all.

I am waiting for the echocardiogram report to make its leisurely way to my GP (hopefully next week) and then I am assuming that I’ll be sent off to a cardiologist, probably for yet more tests. There are no drugs for this condition, so depending on my overall health the most likely outcome is probably a valve replacement. The bad news is that this is a major operation, but the good (in fact great) news is that it’s been discovered, and that once I’ve recovered from the operation I’ll be as good as new.

It’s all been a bit of a shock, and of course there is lots of uncertainty at the moment, but if the past few years has taught me anything it’s that nothing is ever actually certain, and that we have to take each precious moment as it comes. So, I am letting you know just in case you have any experience of something like this (Mum and Dad had all sorts of heart problems but this was never picked up, although if it does turn out to be congenital one of them would have had it too), and also because I think it helps to share these things (and because you have been such a wonderful support through all sorts of shenanigans over the years).

I must say that my science studies are actually helping – I am so curious about what will happen next! I have spent more time in hospital on my own behalf in the past few months than in the whole of my previous 63 years, so it’s been quite an education, and it makes me realise how incredibly lucky I’ve been on the health front. I am 100% up for whatever happens next, so let’s see.

Old Bugwoman’s Almanac – July – Updated

Green woodpecker in East Finchley Cemetery July 2021

Well, Readers, it’s that time of the month again when I turn to my predictions from the Christmas period to see what’s meant to be happening in July. Outside the flowers are forming on the buddleia, the green alkanet has gone over and it looks to me as if the sedum will be in flower in the not too distant future. For birds, the summer is already ending and they’re planning a rest so they can moult and recover from the breeding season. Many of the frogs have hopped away and good luck to the poor little things during this dry spell. But let’s see what’s planned for this month!

Things to Do

  • Well, lovely Readers, what could be nicer on a hot summer afternoon than to find a shady spot and get stuck into a good book? The Wainwright Prize  longlist will be announced on 6th July this year, with the shortlist for the prizes on 10th August, a bit later than last year. The award  includes 12 Nature Writing titles, 12 Conservation Writing titles and 12 Children’s Nature/Conservation Writing titles so reading through the whole lot  might be a big ask for even the most dedicated reader. I have discovered some fantastic books in previous years: last year I was especially impressed by Dan Saladino’s ‘Eating to Extinction’ and Dave Goulson’s ‘Insect Apocalypse’ in the Conservation section, and ‘Shadowlands’ by Matthew Green and ‘Otherlands’ by Thomas Halliday in the Nature Writing section. ‘Nature Writing’ is a broad school, but it’s great to see the sheer variety of titles and diversity of people who are writing about the natural world these days, and who care so passionately about it.
  • The RHS Hampton Court Flower Show is on from 4th to 9th July – lots of people who know about such things say that it’s a much more pleasant experience than Chelsea Flower Show which can be extremely crowded and difficult to get around. And I do believe that there’s the chance to get lots of plants very cheaply on the last day of the show. Just saying :-). If you live a bit further north there’s the Tatton Park Flower Show in Knutsford, Cheshire, from 19th to 23rd July.
  • If you live in the West Country, Rosemoor Gardens (another RHS Garden based in Torrington, Devon) is holding two bat walks, one on Friday 7th July from 8.30 to 11 p.m, and one on Friday 21st July (same times), and very interesting they sound too.
  • If you’re in London, the London Wildlife Trust has lots and lots of events for children in July, plus a guided walk in the Camley Street reserve at Kings Cross every Sunday. I must visit again soon, now that the exams are over!
  • The London Natural History Society has lots of Saturday events in July, including a tree walk in City of London cemetery, and a flora walk in Lavender Hill cemetery. Probably no hamsters though.

Plants for Pollinators

The RHS suggests roses as their key plant for July, but as we know, not all roses are created equal. The single-flowered varieties can be abuzz all summer, and birds love the rosehips on some of the more ornamental varieties, such as Rosa rugosa. However, a big attraction of roses is that their leaves are used by leaf-cutter bees – the first time I realised that the UK has seven species of these bees I was stunned to think that we could have anything so exotic. Leaf-cutter bees have also taken a shine to some stray enchanter’s nightshade in my garden, though, as you can see…

Look at those nice neat semi-circles!

You really are spoilt for choice in July, but here are some things that work for me.

Buddleia. Yes I know we’re not supposed to plant it, but mine planted themselves. I have dwarf buddleia in the back garden (which grows to about 9 feet all ahem) and the normal stuff in the front, which grows to about 15 feet tall and is most unruly and badly behaved, but is also forgiving of whatever pruning I attempt. Here is a selection of visitors.

Bumblebee. Just look at all that pollen!

Red admiral

Painted Lady

Teasel. They say that once you’ve planted it, you’ll never be without it. But why would you want to be, when it’s this popular? And hopefully the finches will come in the winter.

Hemp agrimony. Another messy plant, but my oh my is it popular with pollinators, not just bees and butterflies but hoverflies and spiders too.

Gatekeeper butterfly on hemp agrimony

The RHS also recommends lavender (not the ‘bunny-ears’ French variety in my experience), angelica (indeed), marjoram (easy the most popular plant in my windowboxes), sea holly (which I’ve never tried but looks as if it should work very well) and purple toadflax (which I’m trying this year, having seen how popular it was as a ‘weed’ in Dorset.

Bird Behaviour

In his book ‘The Secret Lives of Garden Birds’, Dominic Couzens says that July is the ‘month of goodbyes’, and for so many birds the breeding season is coming to an end, and they will soon be, literally, ’empty nesters’. This is the most challenging period for newly fledged birds, as they fend for themselves for the first time. Still, some parents are still diligently looking after their youngsters, as was the case with this family of sparrows in the garden in July 2021.

And these crows, seen from the dogwalkers’ café on Hampstead Heath.

Some birds are already pretty independent, like the young green woodpecker below.

Interestingly, Couzens mentions that in birds that have more than one brood in the year, such as blackbirds and robins, the parents often split the parental care after the young have been out in the world for a few days, with one parent taking sole charge of a particular number of youngsters. This means that the female has more time to feed up and prepare for her second brood, while not entirely neglecting the ones that have already left the nest.

This fledgling blackbird was being fed by his father…

And it’s impossible to say who was feeding this young robin, as the adults can’t be sexed by appearance. I was very glad to see him/her in July 2020, right in the middle of lockdown.

Plants in Flower

Too many to list, but here are a few favourites…

Wild carrot is gradually replacing the hogweed in the open places in the cemetery in July. It’s probably my favourite umbellifer (though I also love angelica. Decisions, decisions!)

The creamy smell of privet is coming from hedges everywhere, and very popular it is with hoverflies

All over the cemetery, the plants are in flower.  There’s  catsear…

ribwort plantain…

lesser knapweed…

and St John’s wort…


spear thistle…


and, on some of the sunnier graves, there’s reflexed stonecrop..

and on others there’s white stonecrop…

and on yet others, there’s Caucasian stonecrop.

What a cornucopia! Truly, July is a wonderful time for a wander.

Other Things to Look/Listen Out For

  • Moths and butterflies of all kinds – in London we had lots of hummingbird hawk moths and also a positive outbreak of Jersey Tigers. (And yesterday I saw the white ermine moth, which was a real treat).

Jersey Tiger

  • This is the time of year when you might first see young foxes in the garden or, more likely, hear them wrestling and fighting with that characteristic ‘gekkering’ sound. The poor exhausted adults will often have had enough at this time of year, and will start being more reluctant to feed their youngsters. They may even start to drive them away. This is the time of year when you are most likely to encounter dead foxes, most of whom will have been run down by cars, easily the biggest threat to the animals in the city.
  • Make the most of the swifts circling and screaming in the skies this month, as they will soon be making the return journey to Africa.
  • The full moon this month is on 3rd July, and is known as the Wyrt Moon (from Wort, meaning herb) or the Mead Moon. It’s the first of four supermoons in 2023, which means it should be noticeably bigger and brighter than other moons.

Holidays and Celebrations

  • 8th and 9th July are the days for the Women’s and Men’s Singles Finals at Wimbledon, for you tennis lovers out there
  • 15th July is St Swithuns Day – if it rains on St Swithun’s Bridge in Winchester today (Swithun was Anglo-Saxon Bishop of Winchester), it is supposed to rain for the next forty days and nights so fingers crossed (although if last year’s drought conditions in some parts of the country were anything to go by, maybe it wouldn’t be such a bad thing)
  • 18th July is Islamic New Year (Al Hijra) which starts at the sighting of the crescent moon
  • 23rd July is the birthday of Haile Selassie, and is one of the holiest days of the Rastafarian calendar
  • 26th July is Tisha B’Av, the Jewish day of mourning, which commences at sundown



A Lovely Surprise

White Ermine moth (Spilosoma lubricipeda) (Photos copyright entomart)

Dear Readers, this morning I spent a bit of time in the front garden, tidying up the green alkanet and cutting back a little bit of the buddleia where it’s threatening to take the postman’s eye out. I stood up, stretched, and noticed a white moth with a fat yellow abdomen and a sprinkling of black spots feeding on the lavender. What a wonder it was! It was so white and furry that I could see exactly why it was called an ermine moth – you could just imagine them edging some miniature dignitary’s cloak. Alas, it only visited for a second before heading off up Huntingdon Road here in East Finchley. I could see it for a good minute as it sped off, glinting against the background of brick and slate.

White ermine moths can afford to be conspicuous – they are apparently poisonous, though I haven’t gotten to the bottom of whether this is actually true. As usual in internet land, people seem to just copy chunks of the Wikipedia page without checking whether the information is correct or not. But I suspect that that flash of yellow on the abdomen would be a strong warning to any passing bird, plus these are not the most shy and retiring of moths. When I used to visit Mum and Dad in Dorset, I found a very pale White Ermine moth just sitting on a fencepost, where surely someone would have picked him/her off if they’d been edible.

White Ermine moth at Moreton Station in Dorset.

It’s not just the adults who are delightfully furry, it’s the caterpillars as well – they are proper ‘woolly bears’, and as their main food plants include nettles, dandelions and viper’s bugloss you have an excellent argument for letting the weeds be.

White Ermine moth caterpillar (Photo by By Rasbak – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

And so, that was my excitement for the day. Incidentally, you might remember me writing about some tent caterpillars called bird cherry ermine moths a year or so ago – these are micromoths, much smaller than today’s moth, although the adults of this species too are white and black. The tent caterpillars have the scientific name Yponomeuta yvonemella which is a bit of a mouthful, but it’s important to be able to distinguish between species without confusion, and this is the perfect way of doing just that – an ermine moth can mean at least three or four different species just in this country, so goodness knows how confusing it would be internationally. People sometimes get annoyed when ‘Latin’ names are used (often not Latin at all, incidentally – all sorts of languages crop up) but the more I study science, the more I realise how valuable these tongue-twisters can be.

And in the meantime, keep your eyes open for moths, those underrated pollinators and creatures of the most exquisite (and usually understated) beauty.


Lost and Found

Skylark (Alauda arvensis) Photo by Neil Smith.

Dear Readers, in my latest copy of British Wildlife, there’s a link to the British Trust for Ornithology’s new ‘Doorstep Birds’ site. You can plug in your postcode, and it will tell you what bird species have been lost from your area, which are declining, which are increasing, and which are colonising. So of course I popped in the postcode for my house in East Finchley, and here are the results. The site compares the 1968-72 Bird Atlas with the 2007-11 one, so the results are not the most up to date, but it’s possible to click on a particular species to look at more recent information on trends etc. The area covered is also not the most granular – it covers from East Finchley in the north east of London to Shepherd’s Bush in the south west. However, it has some very interesting findings, in terms of not only what has been lost, but what has arrived.

On the deficit side, it appears that the area no longer has breeding skylarks or barn owls (though I do note that an individual barn owl was spotted on Hampstead Heath earlier this week, so maybe they’re making a comeback). We used to have grey partridges and cuckoos, yellowhammers and tree sparrows, rooks and nesting swallows, and these had all disappeared by 2011. Surprisingly, it seems that we also had grey partridges. I find the loss of the nesting swallows particularly sad, as I’m fairly sure that this is avoidable – surely we could make space for these birds to make their nests? And the missing rooks are something of a mystery, although these are birds that largely eat worms and leatherjackets and other underground invertebrates, and between climate change increasing drought conditions, trees that used to host rookeries being cut down and generally less tolerance for large, noisy, communal birds it’s probably not that surprising.

On the plus side, however, some birds are colonising the region, and a mixed bunch they are too. We now have little egrets and sparrowhawks: the latter have been something of a success story, and are clearly taking advantage of our penchant for bird tables and  bird feeders.

Sparrowhawk (Accipiter nisus)

Other new birds of prey include peregrine falcons (who have long nested on buildings such as Tate Modern and the Royal Courts of Justice) and hobbies, small falcons with a liking for dragonflies.

Peregrines executing a food drop close to the Royal Courts of Justice.

Apparently kingfishers are back  –  they are certainly doing well at Walthamstow Wetlands, though this is outside my region, but I have also caught a glimpse of one flying along the stream in Regent’s Park. And it appears that nightingales are back too, with one being spotted in Barnes in south-west London a few years ago, at the Wetlands Centre.

Nightingale (Luscinia megarhynchos) (Photo by By Carlos Delgado – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0,

In fact, I think that areas such as the wetlands at Barnes and Woodberry in north London may well be responsible for many of the colonising species, which include common tern and lapwing, shoveler ducks and gadwall, teal, garganey and shelduck. These areas were previously managed purely as reservoirs, but now there is also a strong drive to support wildlife and to increase biodiversity. It feels like a real case of ‘if you build it, they will come’. Who knows what the impact of increasing meadows and grassland, mixed woodland and wood pasture might be? It feels as if there are still possibilities, even now on the brink of climate and ecological disaster.

If you’re in the UK, have a look at the picture where you live, and see what’s been going on.

Common tern (Sterna hirundo) (Photo by By Badjoby – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

Pits, Pies and Privet

Dear Readers, I took a quick walk along my street in East Finchley today, and, as usual, I found lots to look at and think about. First up, some lovely people have planted up the tree pits around the street trees, and this one in particular is a lovely mixture of native plants, yarrow, poppies, cornflowers, clover and this little yellow flower which I think is ribbed melilot, and which might well crop up as a Wednesday Weed…

Yarrow and Poppy

Ribbed melilot

Red Clover


Further along the road, a clump of Mexican fleabane looks as if it’s been caged in, but isn’t too unhappy about it. This is such a happy little plant: it grows anywhere and although modest is a great favourite with hoverflies, those very underrated pollinators. 

I’ve noticed that a lot of people are moving away from box as a hedging plant, and no wonder – most of them have been absolutely destroyed by the caterpillars of the box moth. However, privet seems to be making a comeback, and I’m happy about that – I love the creamy smell of it in the summer (it always reminds me of the scent of lilies, without the sickly overtones), and the bees absolutely love it.

And finally, the magpies are up to no good, as usual. This one is a fairly young one, and was very curious about whatever was hiding in the interstices of this satellite dish. I only hope that the signal isn’t degraded.

And so, as usual, a leisurely stroll outside presents all kinds of interesting things, and is enough to lighten my mood regardless of what else is going on. Plus, magpies are so incessantly curious that they put me in mind of small children, always on the verge of getting into trouble and impossible to leave alone without some mischief taking place. No wonder they’re doing so well in our cities, they remind me of Dickensian urchins.

Some Interesting Cemetery Wildlife

A Eurasian Hamster (Cricetus cricetus) in a cemetery in Vienna

Dear Readers, the only time I have ever seen a wild European hamster was when I spotted a very dead and squished one on a path above Sölden in Austria, but it appears that I was looking in the wrong place. Although this little rodent is critically endangered across its whole range (generally eastwards from Belgium), there is a growing population in the cemeteries of Vienna. There, the hamsters are said to steal the candles from the graves and pull them into their underground dens: the wax is a  a useful source of fat during the cold Viennese winters. I for one would not begrudge them.

Another Viennese cemetery hamster (Photo Sphoo, CC BY-SA 4.0 <;, via Wikimedia Commons)

What is especially interesting to me is that the Vienna Cemetery people have welcomed a citizen science project, where people record their wildlife sightings – there have been a dozen species of mammals (including foxes, who will no doubt enjoy the occasional hamster as a light snack), 80 species of birds, and hundreds of species of other animals across their 46 cemeteries. How fascinating it would be to record something similar in our local cemeteries! I might try and get something going when I retire. I suspect, however, that the presence of endangered species in one of ‘my’ cemeteries might be extremely inconvenient for the management of some of them, where large areas are already being cleared for additional graves.

Most people’s exposure to hamsters consists of having a golden hamster as a pet – these are actually Syrian hamsters, and if handled from very young can become ridiculously tame. We had a ‘free-range’ hamster called Hammy (such imagination) and she was feisty enough to run up to our rabbit (Ben the Bun since you ask) and steal whole baby carrots from him while he looked on with an expression of disbelief. We also had a pair of Russian hamsters, who look adorable but are extremely bitey little things. Nowadays, I can’t help but feel sorry for small animals of all kinds in cages and hutches if they don’t have access to a bigger, more exciting space, and the freedom to live out their lives as they were meant to.

A rather adorable Syrian hamster (Photo By Harpoen – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

But back to the hamsters of Vienna. The European hamster is the largest hamster in the world (though admittedly not all that big) and can grow to the hefty weight of one whole pound (that’s 460 grams for anyone metrically minded). The species can also live to eight years, and, as it can start breeding at 43 days, and has litters that number up to 15 young, you would think that the world would be overrun, in much the same way as it was with Tribbles in Star Trek. Alas, between the intensive farming, the light pollution (hamsters are nocturnal), climate change (the hamsters usually hibernate but the warmer temperatures are confusing them) and persecution. Honestly, who could persecute a hamster? We really are shocking sometimes.

A European hamster with cheekpouches full of something tasty (Photo SgH Vienna, CC BY-SA 4.0 <;, via Wikimedia Commons)

One good thing is that although usually solitary, the European hamster breeds well in captivity – there are breeding programmes all over Europe which aim to release the hamster back into its native habitat, where suitable areas can be found. I note that in 2011, France was threatened with fines of up to 25m Euro by the Court of Justice of the European Union for failing to protect the animal because of their agricultural and urbanisation policies. By 2014 France had started a captive breeding programme which aims to release 500 hamsters into the countryside every year, in areas where the farmers are paid not to harvest their fields. Well, this sounds like a rare and most welcome tiny victory for rodents everywhere.

And just in case you fancy watching a pair of European hamsters having a tussle in a Viennese cemetery, have a look here.

And here is one getting some food in for the winter. 

Honestly, I know where I’m going next time I’m in Vienna.



At The Whittington Hospital

Dear Readers, this morning it rained and rained, after nearly a month of tinder-dry weather and so, as I headed off to Whittington Hospital in North London for a routine thyroid check, I wasn’t surprised to see a whole host of snails enjoying themselves in the damp conditions along by the main hospital wall.  I have always had a soft spot for these molluscs, and I love the way that they glide along.

It’s fair to say that the many, many people walking down from the hospital were a little confused about what I might be doing, but most of them simply glanced and then gave me a very wide berth. After all, there is a wide variety of people in Archway, not all of them 100% benign, and so eccentricity of any kind tends to be a bit of a red flag. One small girl did stop and gaze at me, wide-eyed, before being ushered along by her mother. To think that she could have been another mollusc-fan, and we didn’t get a chance to swap notes! What a shame.

Anyhow, I went up to the imaging department, and was handed a pager (who knew that they still existed?) and told to go to Room 12 when it buzzed, which of course it did as soon as I had my reading glasses on. My appointment was for a thyroid ultrasound – the CT scan that I had a while back to try to find the reason for my cough found all sorts of strange anomalies, one of which was a slightly enlarged thyroid. I wasn’t worried because my thyroid function blood tests had all come back with normal readings, but I do love an interesting (and non-invasive) medical procedure. Fortunately there was also a young medical student in attendance so, as I lay there with my throat exposed like some sacrificial lamb, the doctor talked through everything she was finding – nodules, cysts, colloid and even (get this) some comet-tail artefacts – these happen in an ultrasound when it finds something reflective, usually just some kind of protein. Comet-tails are perfectly normal, and apparently a good sign.

I do have a couple of tiny nodules that are too small for the ultrasound to investigate, apparently, so what the doctor is recommending is that I return for another ultrasound in about six months, and if there’s no change (which is what she expects) I’ll be signed off on the thyroid front.

And so I head off home, passing some more snails en route. What calming animals they are (apologies to anyone trying to grow vegetables; you probably take a rather less sanguine view)!

I have a great fondness for the Whittington – I credit it with saving my mother’s life when she came down with sepsis and complications back in 2015, and I have been here for numerous blood tests and X-rays and CT scans over the last six months. I have always found the people who work here to be helpful, kind and knowledgeable, from the volunteers who direct visitors around this maze of a building to the consultants and radiographers and nurses. Strangely enough, the place is starting to feel like home, much as it did when I was visiting Mum during her long stay eight years ago. I would rather not have any health problems (clearly) but as I do, I am so glad that this is my hospital.