Woodingdean 23 April 2019: I found a beautiful yellow crab spider in the garden. Crab spiders don’t make webs – they are hunters. I think this one was a bit confused as it was trying to conceal itself on a pink peony – It might have been more successful on the yellow peonies on the other side of the garden.
After dark I had to rush out to rescue my cat from what sounded like a confrontation with another cat, and was confronted not with a strange cat but with a very large hedgehog. This is wonderful news as I haven’t seen a hedgehog here for years.
Picture: Crab spider (Misumena vatia) on Paeonia cambessedesii
The weather has changed from sunny and cold to sunny and warm and the wind has dropped. Yesterday I saw the first fully open Hawthorn flower so we can all cast our clouts. I spend a morning trying to control the Ivy-Leaved Speedwell (Veronica hederacea) on the allotment. This very insignificant little annual flower is easy to overlook. It flowers early in the year and is now seeding. The seeds will survive in the compost heap, and will be effectively distributed all over the plot when the compost is put on the beds. So instead of digging them in I remove each one carefully and will later drown them in a barrel of water for a year, adding the resulting stinky mush to the compost heap later.
The beetroot and salad leaves have germinated well, but the parsnips are patchy for the second year running. The asparagus is coming up, though, and looks wonderful.
Newmarket Hill, Woodingdean 13 April (2019). Though April it is still cold and there is no one to be seen. A thrush sings while two buzzards glide low over the hill. The leafless trees glow in the westerly sun as a dark grey cloud approaches from the East. Some stonechats chirr in the Hawthorn bushes. Almost the only things in flower are violets, mainly Hairy Violet (Viola hirta), but some Common Dog-violet (Viola riviniana), and the shy-looking Cowslips, Primula veris. Apart from the coconut-scented gorse that is. They say that when the gorse is out of bloom then kissing is out of season. If this is the case there won’t be much going on this summer as the only gorse in this area is Ulex europeus, which flowers all winter and spring but not in the hottest months of the year. Further north in the weald of Sussex, they are luckier, as they also have Dwarf Gorse, U. minor, which flowers later in the year. Later on I find Common Milkwort, Polygala vulgaris, robust and jewel-coloured in magenta and deep violet. The thrush is quiet now but a blackbird is carolling happily away in the sunshine that has followed the hail shower.
Last month the Food and Agriculture Organisation issued a warning of a possible threat of locust swarms to crops and food security in the region from west of the Red Sea – Egypt, Sudan and Eritrea – across Arabia and into southern Iran. They first reported an outbreak in Sudan and Eritrea in December, following good rains in May and October which created the necessary conditions for locust breeding. In January, the Egyptian and Sudanese locust control authorities declared a state of emergency. Teams have been tracking the movements of locusts and spraying them with pesticides.
The outbreak spread to Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Oman, the UAE and Iran with the risk of a further spread towards Pakistan and India. Locust swarms can fly more than a hundred miles a day. Local breeding has also begun in north-west Mauritania and southern Algeria. The next three months will be critical for bringing the situation under control before summer breeding starts. Success depends on effective control and monitoring measures – and on rainfall. The FAO’s Desert Locust Information Service, based in Rome, monitors the situation throughout the world and issues forecasts, as well as providing training and developing technology. But so far the locusts seem to be winning more than losing.
Most of the time locusts are just big grasshoppers, mainly green and brown, living solitary and innocent lives. But when food is plentiful after rain and the population becomes dense, they change their appearance and habits. The females lay their eggs in sync; their numbers can increase twenty-fold in three months. They become black, yellow or red, and extraordinarily gregarious, forming enormous swarms which can clear a field of everything green in no time at all.
They eat their own weight in food every day and, according to the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council, a large swarm may eat 160,000 tonnes of food a day – enough to feed 800,000 people for a year. The last major upsurge was in 2003-5 when control measures and food aid together cost about $750 million; the damage to crops is estimated at $2.5 billion. A locust plague can affect 20 per cent of the Earth’s land area and damage the livelihood of one-tenth of the global population.
The threat of locust plagues has been long recognised, and they have played their part in history both ancient and modern. The two crossings of the Empty Quarter by Wilfred Thesiger immediately after the Second World War, described in his book Arabian Sands, were organised and financed by the British Middle East Anti-Locust Unit as part of a search for locust breeding grounds. Locusts formed the eighth of the ten plagues inflicted on Egypt in the Book of Exodus (immediately following ‘the rain and the hail and the thunders’). Homer compares the Trojans fleeing before Achilles to a swarm of locusts fleeing from a wild fire.
According to St Matthew’s Gospel, John the Baptist lived in the desert and ate locusts and wild honey. Some have suggested that the word locusts here means not the insects but the seedpods of the carob or locust tree – perhaps imagining that an ascetic should be a vegetarian – but that seems fanciful; the word ἀκρίς in the Greek text is unambiguous (the scientific name of the locust family Acrididae is derived from it). Locusts are in fact commonly eaten, and can be a useful source of protein. According to the Book of Leviticus, winged insects are an abomination, but locusts, crickets and grasshoppers are an exception and may be eaten.
Charles Doughty ate them often among the Bedouin and even provides a recipe in his Travels in Arabia Deserta (1870), although he comments in his eccentric Spenserian English that ‘locust powder is not victual to set before guests,’ adding: ‘I have seen poor nomads (more often women) a little out of countenance to confess that (to beguile hunger) they were eating this wretchedness.’ Eating them is currently banned in Saudi Arabia because of the danger of poisoning from pesticides, but there is a thriving black market just now in al-Ahsa, eastern Saudi Arabia, with locusts going for about 12p a bug.
I experienced a locust swarm in Jordan in 1964 or 1965, much more limited than the real plague there in 1963. It was almost frightening, like being in a heavy snowstorm, but with the sky darkened not by snowflakes but by insects a couple of inches long. Two weeks ago strong north winds checked what seemed an immediate threat to Jordan. The Israeli Ministry of Agriculture was gearing up and checking its supplies of insecticides although the chances of locusts reaching there were still considered relatively low. The latest weather news is worrying, with rain reported right across Arabia, a recent thunderstorm in the Emirates and more than an inch of rain in parts of Oman – good news were it not for the locusts.
Good news for the TDAA, not so good for the planet: more people turned up for our AGM last week than Conservatives turned up for the debate on climate change (left-side benches in the picture), and the opposition only just beat us (right-side benches). All too busy scheming their place in the post-Brexit cabinet, I expect. It takes children to tell them that it doesn’t matter who runs the country if there is no country.
Meanwhile, I’ve uploaded the agenda and the minutes to the page on this site called “the seedbank”. Follow the below or click the link at the top of the page:
Sorry for the downtime. We’d had a lot of phishing spam and our webhost automatically shut it down. Sorted now, but I will be moving the forum to a more modern and secure platform as soon as I work out how to transfer the archive.
Just to let you all know the allotment AGM is on at Charles Napier pancake day 5th March starting at 8pm.
All warmly welcome, please let me know if there are any items you would like added to the agenda to discuss related to Tenantry Down.
As we all know these are hard things for allotment sites with council cuts, break ins and thefts so support for the allotment association helps us be heard with a bigger voice and the chance for input in looking after these vital spaces.