Why are killer whales attacking boats?

Orcas – killer whales no less – are on the attack. They have declared war on humanity. They are systematically destroying boats in uncannily coordinated attacks. They are taking revenge because White Gladis, an orca matriarch, was traumatised after being hit by a ship. The attacks began in the seas off Spain and Portugal but now they have spread to the North Sea. Is anyone safe? It’s clear that there are two stories being told at the same time. The first concerns the ethology (study of animal behaviour) of the odontocetes or toothed whales (including dolphins). The second is about the relationship between humans and nature. The two tales are

Has the pandemic made us appreciate nature more?

Out to grass If Liz Truss is forced out of office (and doesn’t also resign her parliamentary seat as Tony Blair did on resigning as prime minister), there will be three ex-PMs sitting on the backbenches of the Commons. When was the last time this happened? — Between Jim Callaghan’s defeat in the 1979 general election and Harold Wilson’s retirement from the Commons four years later, Callaghan, Wilson and Edward Heath were all still in parliament. As for the number of living ex-PMs, we are already at a modern record, with Boris Johnson, Theresa May, David Cameron, Gordon Brown, Tony Blair and John Major. Prior to Johnson’s departure from office,

In search of the peripatetic philosopher Theophrastus

Publishers lately seem to have got the idea that otherwise uncommercial subjects might be rendered sexy if presented with a personal, often confessional, counterpoint. The ostensible subject of Laura Beatty’s book is the pioneering Greek botanist and philosopher Theophrastus. He was a friend of Aristotle’s, and was once thought his intellectual equal, but is now little known except to a few classicists and historians of science. But since no one wants to publish a straight book on Theophrastus, we get instead a book that is at least as much about Laura Beatty, her library researches, her travels in Greece and her kitchen garden. Her publishers describe the book as ‘genre-defying’.

How not to kill your house plants

The year was 2015, and I was head over heels, completely obsessed with House of Hackney’s Palmeral wallpaper. The bold print features fans of colonial green palm leaves splayed across a soothing off-white background, and I fantasised about plastering it over all four walls of my London living room, thinking it was the closest I was going to get to living in a tropical paradise any time soon. But as it turns out, I was thinking small. Very small. Sproutl – a schmancy new gardening and outdoor living platform – have just launched a tropical plant collection in collaboration with none other than The Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew; so now

Farmers vs rewilders: can they find their common ground?

Our age isn’t the first to set an English landscape of our dreams against the one which actually exists, or see earning a living from the land as something base and destructive. The tension has always been there between people who work the land and the utopian dreamers for whom every mark of the plough is a scar. Farmers bristle at talk of countryside utopias and rewilding, and passionate wilders can’t see why land managers do things which they think are harmful to the land. Both groups complain about being misunderstood by the other, all the while failing to spot that the much more profound threat to the countryside comes

A nature lover’s guide to spring wildflowers

We have reached the time in spring when everything goes whoosh! and the bare brown and grey days of winter start becoming a distant memory. There are so many spring flowers around, and everyone likes to gab on about tulips and bluebells and blossom, while pointedly ignoring some of our most beautiful wild flowers. Even though the road verges are covered in beautiful golden polka dots from dandelions, or frothing gently with the blooms of cow parsley, few of us appreciate ‘weeds’ because we have designated them a nuisance and an affront to our desire to control nature. And yet ‘weeds’ – really just wild flowers with a little more

Is the adder slithering towards extinction?

In early April, when the chiffchaff sings its drab little song in the leafless hawthorns, something is stirring in the dead bracken. Having spent the winter months underground, one of our most fascinating creatures slithers into the weak spring sunshine: the adder. The emerging adders haven’t eaten for six months, but food is not on their minds; it is the mating season. Rival males indulge in spectacular ritual combat, rearing up side by side and twisting and wrestling at great speed. After mating the snakes disperse and spend the summer in solitary pursuit of mice, voles, lizards, frogs and fledglings. Adders never use more energy than is necessary and spend

The scourge of urban gulls

Early this year, five dead herring gulls were discovered on a Cornish beach, and when tested it was found they had bird flu. This should have provoked serious concern: these were the first gulls to be found carrying bird flu in Britain. But because of the war and because we’re sick of epidemics, it was largely ignored. The dead gulls matter because gulls live among us. Some 75 per cent of our herring gulls are now urban. There are 100,000 to 180,000 breeding on rooftops in England, according to the 2020 national census. Tim Newark sounded the alarm in these pages that year, but since then the problem has grown

The problem with rewilding

The government has gone wild. Under new plans, just announced by Environment Secretary George Eustice, farmers and landowners in England could be paid to turn large areas of land into nature reserves and restore floodplains. In place of the old EU subsidies, farmers will be rewarded by the government for how much they care for the environment. It sounds like a wonderful idea — a return to a glorious, prelapsarian wilderness. But it’s a little more complicated than that. Eustice referred warmly to the poster boy of rewilding, the Knepp estate in West Sussex. I’ve been to Knepp and it is indeed glorious. Nightingales have returned, accompanied by clouds of Purple

The scourge of Britain’s seagulls

What’s happened to seagulls? They used to be rather charming. The plaintive cawing of gulls used to be the nostalgic soundtrack to any seaside holiday. In the banal, best-selling book Jonathan Livingston Seagull, the eponymous bird flies for the spiritual joy of it and learns great truth and wisdom. The one thing it doesn’t do is nick your chips. How times have changed. Today, if you go to a harbour town in Cornwall, say, and buy an edible treat, there’s an even chance you’ll see out of the corner of your eye a white flash and — whoosh! — the top half of your pasty has gone. ‘Bastard!’ you shout vainly

Letters: In defence of organic food

A note about manure Sir: I am afraid Matt Ridley shows a lack of understanding about agriculture in general and organic production in particular in his argument against organic food (‘Dishing the dirt’, 24 July). Livestock production has involved the use of animal faeces — or farmyard manure as it is called when mixed with straw — ever since livestock was first housed in the 1800s. Bacterial infections are due to poor hygiene in the slaughter and processing chain, not how animals are fed, grass is produced, or the use of manure, which is an important by-product. Bean sprouts being infected with E.coli is probably down to poor hygiene of

The strange death of the English garden

Gardening is dead. It had been ailing for a long time and it sometimes looked as though it might pull through. But I knew it had finally kicked the bucket when the last of the three patches of grass I used to be able to see behind my house was replaced with a plastic lawn. Then there was a ghastly death rattle: plastic ivy was draped over an electric gate which serves to let the owner’s car into the paved area formerly known as the front garden. And that came after the arrival of dozens of plastic balls in the neighbourhood. They are supposed to be imitations of Buxus sempervirens

Why it’s boom time for bitterns

Bitterns are booming, both literally and metaphorically. These handsome brown birds from the heron family make a noise quite unlike anything else in Britain and we are lucky to be able to hear it. If there is such a thing as a birding bucket list then hearing a bittern’s ‘boom’ — the loudest bird call in the country — should be on it. Before the bittern starts booming he performs a warm-up ritual called grunting. He strengthens his throat muscles, which expand to turn his gullet into an echo chamber. His powerful muscles make up a fifth of his body weight and can propel the sound of his boom for

The strange magic of the mountain hare

The numbers of the dear old mountain hare in England are becoming perilously depleted. A researcher, Carlos Bedson, has suggested there may be only 2,500 left in the Peak District. Warmer weather seems to be finishing them off. It is time to appreciate them and their cousins, the brown hare, more and to look after them. I was in my thirties when I’d head up on to Saddleworth Moor with my father-in-law to watch the white-furred mountain hares. We didn’t say much, we just took in the old magic of those beautiful creatures. I’m not the only one to love hares. That great English poet and hymnodist William Cowper suffered

Virgil understood the great power of nature

‘Georgics’ are an ancient form of poetry about agriculture and the land. The term derives from Greek gê ‘land’ + ergon ‘work’ (cf. farmer George) and emphasises the necessity of working hard to counteract deprivation, build a nation and forge a civilised world. Virgil’s Georgics (29 bc) in four books are a supreme example of the genre and not without relevance to the modern ‘green’ agenda. Its opening outlines the subject matter: field crops and tilling the soil, viticulture, and the care and skill required to tend cows, sheep and bees. Virgil then calls on the gods to aid his task, and finally asks the young Octavian (soon to become

In defence of dandelions

Dandelions are one of the cheeriest wild flowers. They are loved by children for their ‘clock’ seed heads, are entirely edible for humans and are a source of food for many insects and birds. And yet many gardeners go to great lengths to get rid of them. This year’s daffodils may have faded, but dandelions — their similarly coloured wild replacements — are in full swing, and it’s a vintage year for them. Road verges, meadows and lawns are covered in thousands of gold polka dots, with each plant bearing half a dozen blooms. They make a boring green sward far more interesting, and are — to my mind at

The cruelty and cunning of the cuckoo

St Tiburtius’ Day, on 14 April, is traditionally when you will hear the first cuckoo. Since at least the Middle Ages, cuckoos have been seen as heralds of spring. They are also often associated with romance, and yet they are some of the cruellest birds found in Britain. The adults arrive in this country at the end of March or the beginning of April and depart in late July or August. They return to central Africa and fly, either via Italy, resting near the River Po and continuing over the Sahara, or stopping in Spain before entering Africa from the far western end. They live mainly in and around the

Mother Nature is giving us her middle finger

Gstaad I have never experienced such a long, continuous blizzard, and I’ve been coming here for 63 years. The ski lifts are closed, as are the hotels, and it’s been coming down for a week non-stop. My Portuguese handyman Fernando now lives on his snow plough, clearing the private road that leads to the house, as useless a task as trying to bail out the Titanic. By now I should be in London, enjoying my new rented house in Glebe Place. Instead I’m housebound and snowed in, a modern Prisoner of Zenda without the Ruritanian uniforms. My only worries are the possibility of an avalanche, and my son’s insistence that

It’s all about the blooms: eye-catching blossom to spot this spring

There is no finer sight in spring than a blossom tree. Planting one is, to my mind, a public service, as it will cheer generations of people plodding down your street, both with the blooms that appear on its branches, and with the confetti of petals thrown along the pavement. In the next few weeks, the streets are going to become incredibly well-dressed with blossom, and here are five to look out for in particular:  Mimosa, Acacia dealbata  This is already out in London, and my goodness, you can’t miss it. It is the most vivid lemon yellow collection of little pompoms you can imagine, bursting out of beautiful ferny

Why egrets keep making headlines

There’s an unwritten rule in newspaper journalism that any story about egrets must have one of two headlines. Either ‘no egrets’ if numbers are dropping or ‘egrets, we’ve had a few’ if they are booming. At the moment, fortunately, it’s the latter. The little egret (egretta garzetta) can be seen as something of a trailblazer. The first only nested successfully in England as recently as 1997, on Brownsea Island in Dorset, and there are now up to 1,000 pairs in the country, according to the RSPB. They compete for food with herons and cormorants on the Thames and even have been known to venture into cities and towns. What looks