Here’s something short and sweet to begin this new series of vintage film treats from the BFI National Archive. Regular readers will be aware that I have a fondness for river creatures (you can see my most recent encounter with such wildlife here), so when I came across this hundred year old snippet of film I just couldn’t resist.
The antics of this very cheeky little otter were filmed around about a century ago by Charles Urban, an American-born film-maker and producer. Despite being born on the other side of the Atlantic, Urban had an important influence on early British cinema generally – including producing some early examples of wildlife films, a genre which remains highly popular on British TV. We are still fascinated by otters too, although it is not often that we see one in the kind of environment that Urban found here!
Bela Lugosi’s dead…
Well, I’m afraid I’ve got some news for you, Bauhaus. The bats are unlikely to have left the bell tower, no matter which classic cult horror movie legend has just passed into the great beyond, because bats don’t often tend to roost in belfries. According to the Bat Conservation Trust (pdf), bats do roost in churches – it’s just they seem to find bell towers far too noisy, dusty and draughty for their purposes (and who can blame them). Sorry to ruin the illusion!
Honestly, it’s true, bats really aren’t as scary as all that, despite the continued attempts of Halloween tradition to try and convince us otherwise. I’m very fond of the little critters (they’re seriously cute – no, they really are!), and I find their lives fascinating. Which is why, this Halloween, I’ll be looking at bats in much more detail, and trying to separate the facts from the fiction.
The basic bat facts are these. Bats are the only true flying mammals. Rather weirdly, their wings are similar in structure to the bones in a human hand. Most bats eat insects, navigating and finding their prey in the dark using echolocation, which works in a similar way to sonar. Bats are found the world over, and make up about 20% of all mammals across the globe (over a quarter here in the UK).
I realised recently that we haven’t had any ducks round here for absolutely ages. So, when I spotted a few relatively friendly mallards on a family trip to Bodiam Castle in East Sussex not so long ago, I decided that a new duck post was definitely in the offing. And when I say I spotted a few mallards, I actually mean there were loads of them. They were absolutely everywhere. They didn’t seem that bothered by humans either (their collective look of disdain when a small boy came hurtling up the path towards them, enthusiastically yelling “OOOOH, HELLO DUCKS!” kinda said it all).
Out for a pleasant walk by the Thames in the sunshine last Sunday, I turned a corner to find this gang of cheeky rodents – in fact, this lot weren’t the only grey squirrels in sight. Tempted by the remains of picnics and ice creams (as well as the seeds and buds of the many mature trees in the area), squirrels were bounding round everywhere I looked. As I walked through the shady green grounds of York House in Twickenham with my camera in my hand, they seemed to be edging ever closer to me, circling me as I strolled – their fear of humans almost non-existent after so many years of posing for photographs and being cute for scraps of food. It almost felt as if I were in the opening scenes of some weird, squirrelly horror movie, so I quickly pocketed my camera and left, breathing a sigh of relief…
I think I’ll stick with ducks in the future!
To absolutely no-one’s surprise, the controversial badger cull trial is in trouble. There appears to be confusion over how many badgers there actually are in the trial area to begin with, and the government’s targets for killing these beautiful creatures have not, it seems, been met – leading to an extension to this pilot cull being requested in order to do so. The Environment Secretary Owen Paterson, who is very much in favour of the cull, was asked about this in a BBC interview today:
BBC News Interviewer: What you describe there as success, the critics will argue has been a failure on all levels. You didn’t estimate the number of badgers in the area correctly in the first place, you haven’t reached the 70% target of killing badgers that you set yourself at the beginning of this and now the trial has to be extended. You’re moving the goalposts on all fronts.
Owen Paterson: No, that’s not right at all. The badgers moved the goalposts. We’re dealing with a wild animal, subject to the vagaries of the weather and disease and breeding patterns.
BBC News Interviewer: Well, doesn’t that make the cull ridiculous in itself then?
Well, yes. Yes, it does. But the cull has always been ridiculous in itself. And Paterson is quite right when he points out that badgers are wild animals, although I’m not sure how that would make them responsible for changing the rules of football – let alone a basic human inability to count correctly or shoot straight. Indeed, I suspect the badgers are probably less on the wild side and more like absolutely livid over all this stupidity. So livid, in fact, that I like to think they’ve run away with the goalposts so poor Mr Paterson can’t play football…
Seems I wasn’t the only one amused by the possibilities of this mental image – over at usvsth3m.com, they’ve got a fun Owen Paterson’s Badger Penalty Shoot-Out game where you can try to get the ball past a group of sneaky goalpost-moving badgers. It’s not as easy as it looks – the badgers beat me every time!
Despite this week’s rain and a wind so gusty that I almost thought I was going to be blown away like the queue of nannies in Mary Poppins, it seems that spring has finally arrived – much to the relief of everyone, including this lovely dog. Happily sunbathing on a lounger atop a houseboat moored on the Grand Union Canal at Ladbroke Grove, he sat up to watch me go by – and posed rather beautifully when I got my camera out!
I’m a regular rummager of charity shop bookshelves – it really is amazing what you can discover gathering dust in forgotten corners. A recent bargain acquisition was Ed Glinert’s fascinating volume, The London Compendium, an engrossing guide to the hidden nooks and crannies of the capital. It’s one of those wonderful books that can be read cover to cover or, as I’ve been doing, dipped into at various points simply out of curiosity or personal interest.
And it was while dipping into the section on east London (an area that is currently in the news with the opening of the Olympic Games this week) that I discovered a remarkable story that I had never come across before. A story that I couldn’t resist sharing with you…
Meet Charles Jamrach, Victorian animal importer, exporter, breeder and retailer. And we’re not talking about kittens, hamsters and goldfish either – Jamrach’s Animal Emporium, on the East End’s then-infamous Ratcliffe Highway, was probably the only place in 19th century London where, almost unbelievably to our modern sensibilities, “the casual buyer could obtain, for instance, a lion, no questions asked”¹, as Glinert wryly puts it. Jamrach’s many customers included P.T. Barnum’s circus, London Zoo, various menageries and wealthy (and well-connected) individuals who wanted something more than just a moggie or a mutt.
Apparently there are rats in Downing Street (feel free to insert your own joke about politicians here, dear readers!); they have, it seems, been spotted scuttling about in the background of several recent BBC TV news reports from outside the Cameron residence. This is no surprise really; rats are all over the place, with many of them settling and breeding happily in our towns and cities – they’re attracted by the food waste and rubbish humans leave everywhere and can rapidly become a problem, creating unsightly mess and spreading disease.
One solution is to acquire a cat, as anyone who has ever received the feline gift of half a dead bird placed lovingly in their shoe will attest to. In fact, it was in order to prevent rats and other pests noshing their way through food stocks and grain supplies that cats were domesticated by our ancestors in the first place (the sitting on your lap and purring like a lawnmower thing was a pleasant by-product of this process).
A Downing Street spokesman has, however, announced that there are no immediate plans to get a feline rat-catcher in, although there is a ‘pro-cat faction’ (the younger Camerons perhaps?) who would, it appears, like to see a new furry member of the Cabinet Office team recruited as soon as possible.
If a cat were to move into Number Ten, it wouldn’t be the first time that Downing Street has had a feline resident. The Home Office and the Treasury have each had a succession of resident cats, including the Munich Mouser (who may have also lived at Number Ten) during both Neville Chamberlain and Winston Churchill’s terms of office during the 1930s and 1940s.
Should you go for a walk along any stretch of the Thames on a sunny afternoon round about this time of year, you’re almost guaranteed to spot some wildlife on your way. Be it fish or ducks or gulls or herons or seals or even small land mammals and, of course, a multitude of insects, the river and its banks are nigh on heaving with life these days. But that wasn’t always the case. And there have been times in the river’s history when far scarier creatures than these roamed the banks and the flood plains of the Thames…
Many of you will remember the tragic tale of the ‘Thames whale’ and the media frenzy that poor creature unintentionally provoked – but can you imagine the reaction of the press if a hippo was spotted happily swimming under London Bridge? Or if a woolly mammoth went on a rampage along the Embankment? Or if a straight-tusked elephant was seen munching its way through the flora of Docklands? Or if a woolly rhinoceros charged across Waterloo Bridge, scattering oblivious commuters in its wake?
Had they been around at the time, the red-top tabloids would have probably not even batted an eyelid at any such sights, as there is much archaeological evidence for all of these large and frankly quite scary prehistoric creatures living in and around the river area – alongside our Paleolithic ancestors, who hunted these beasts for their skins and meat.
This week, we’ve had a few beautiful, glorious sunny days in this corner of west London. In fact, it has been so lovely at times that you might have been forgiven for thinking that spring had finally arrived to relieve this seemingly never-ending and freezing cold northern hemisphere winter we’ve been shivering through. But you’d be wrong.
Despite the fact that spring actually officially begins this coming weekend with the vernal equinox, there appears to be little sign of it in the nation’s parks and gardens yet. I’ve seen plenty of pretty purple crocuses and a few cheerful yellow daffodils in neighbouring gardens, but even the usually early flowering magnolia trees in my area are only just beginning to bud, and most of the other local trees appear to be as bare as they were in January.
The situation seems to be the same across the country, with the Woodland Trust recently estimating that signs of the British spring are anything up to a month late in emerging this year – and they’d know, they have records tracking the start of spring that date back to the 1600s.