Tuesday, 16 August 2016

Coastal Creature Identification: Rambling Around Rockpools

Wembury, Area of Outstanding Beauty
Down here in Devon we are very lucky to have easy access to so many wonderful varied terrains and beaches that are simply teeming with life, if you know what to look for. Wembury is located on the south coast of Devon, and it's an ideal spot for rockpooling:

Rockpooling is a super fun and easy activity to do with children, and if you pick a good spot for it you'll certainly find plenty of specimens to investigate. Rockpools are diverse and unique habitats filled with salty sea water and plants and animals that are well adapted to weathering harsh living conditions. They have to deal with fluctuating water temperature, salinity and oxygen levels, plus predators. They're really fascinating environments and can help to get children excited about biology, evolution and marine life in a practical but safe way. Take along a few basic tools, including bucket, not a net - this useful infographic tells you all you need to know to plan an expedition:

For the guide I recommend Collins Complete Guide to British Coastal Wildlife, because it has everything you might need to identify in it including molluscs, algae, fish, sea squirts, sea anemones, crustaceans.. You need this guide! But, be warned: it will likely end up looking rather weathered, like this:

May come with added sea water
Velvet swimming crab 

The velvet crab is the largest swimming crab found in British coastal waters, and it's relatively easy to identify because of the red markings around its eyes. We were really excited to find one! This one took a good look at us before scuttling back into the water:

Marine worms

I didn't manage to get a good photo of this worm we found, but there were so many of them and - if I'm honest - we were kind of excited after spotting the velvet crab and had higher ambitions than worms! The kids were interested in what kinds of worms live in water though, and we're going to have a better bash at identifying them next time.

Unidentified worm
Compass jellyfish

Our third and final find was in the actual sea rather than in the rockpools, and it was really difficult to get a photograph of this compass jellyfish as it was being thrown around with the waves, particularly since it seemed to spent a lot of its time upside-down:

Compass jellyfish: tricky to photograph!
The compass jellyfish is commonly found in British inshore waters between July and October, and is also easy to identify thanks to the beautiful markings on the outside of its bell, better pictured here:

Image source
The compass jellyfish is not dangerous at all, but if you do get sting by one it's apparently similar to the feeling of being stung by nettles (ouch), and you'll need to rinse the wound in salt water or vinegar and remove any stingers with tweezers. (Urinating on the sting won't help.) Compass jellyfish can grow upto 30cm in diameter, and the one we saw was around 10cm, so possibly just a baby!

And for future ambitions...

I'm really keen to find Calliactis parasitica, a sea anemone that is invariably found attached to Common Whelk shells that are occupied by the Common Hermit Crab. Contrary to the name of this, er, specimen, the relationship between these creatures is symbiotic, not parasitic, as the sea anemone protects the hermit crab from predators with its stings, and benefits from the food thrown up by the hermit crab's movements. And it looks like (drumroll please!) this:
Calliactis parasitica, image from the Collins guide
So, why am I so keen to locate the C. parasitica, aside from the fact that it looks so flippin' cool? Because of the children's book Sharing a Shell, of course, by Julia Donaldson. If you don't already know this book and you have children, you're in for a treat. My kids love this book and I love reading it to them, and not only is it about rockpools, but it also features none other than the anemone and crab pictured above (although it doesn't mention that anywhere in the book and there's also a bristle worm sharing the shell in the story). Still, what better way to teach kids about sharing than using the C. parasitica?? Here's a picture of my firstborn reading the book to herself on the beach after a day spent rambling around rockpools in Wembury:
Sharing a Shell: essential reading for mini rockpoolers
You can also watch a reading of the book on YouTube and hear the Sharing a Shell Song by none other than Donaldson herself, but I recommend getting the book anyway - it's a keeper!

Oh, and it would be cool to see a basking shark too, which can also be seen off the coast of Wembury, but we weren't so lucky this time. The Wembury Marine Centre is also a must for keen rockpoolers, and offers free entry to those with National Trust memberships. They also do identification sessions on the beach.

That's it for my first post on coastal wildlife identification.. Now it's time for another trip to the beach - rockpooling is for adults too!
Rockin' the beach selfie look (groan)

Wednesday, 10 August 2016

So You Want To Be An Astronomer? Tips For Stargazers

Ring Nebula, image by Hubble Space Telescope
No matter how many times I look up, I am repeatedly blown away by what I see. More often than not it's too cloudy out to see anything at all after dark, so it's a great treat when we do get a clear night.

A couple of weeks ago I saw a very bright something sitting very low in the sky, and on a hunch I decided to zoom in on it with my telescope, a Celestron Nexstar 130. As soon as the image was in focus I could tell that it was no ordinary star, but to my knowledge there was also no planet visible in this part of the sky, so what could it be? My guess was: a nebula. I'd never seen a nebula before, so when I added the 7mm lens to get a close up view, I was blown away by the above image, although what I saw was of course less detailed than the powerful Hubble Space Telescope's image.

Through the telescope the Ring Nebula looked like a doughnut-shaped ring, with bright stars zooming around within the ring area, white against the rainbow colours of the doughnut. It was incredible. Although the colours were nowhere near as bright as in the Hubble image, they were clearly rainbow-coloured, and moving around within what looked like a hazy smoke ring. I could have watched it all night, but it was difficult to focus on the nebula for long because it kept moving out of sight of the stationary telescope lens, since the Earth is rotating. This happens with anything viewed through a telescope of course, but is less noticeable with other objects in my experience, for example the moon. Perhaps it was more obvious with the Ring Nebula because it's about 2,000 light-years from Earth and measures roughly 1 light-year across.

How did I know what I was looking at for definite? First, the Ring Nebula is found in the constellation of Lyra, and I could see from my copy of Collins Guide to the Night Sky that I had the right constellation in focus, with the Ring Nebula within range. Second, we know that the nebula is tilted toward Earth, so that lucky astronomers like myself can see the ring face-on. Third, a quick online search of the Ring Nebula confirmed what I could see through the lens.

What is a Nebula? Named after the Latin word for cloud, a nebula is an interstellar cloud of gases and dust. The Ring Nebula is a dying star shedding winds of gas. As Slate.com explains:
"All of this gas was expelled by the star in the very center of the nebula, which was once very much like the Sun (though probably about twice our star’s mass). After billions of years of converting hydrogen to helium in its core and generating fierce amounts of energy, it started to run out of fuel. The star expanded into a red giant, blowing a wind of subatomic particles into space; that’s what makes up the shells of gas you see in the deep image.
Eventually, the star started to contract, heating up and blowing a faster wind that caught up with and slammed into the older material. That’s what forms the brighter inner ring. Interestingly, it’s not actually shaped like a ring: Studies have shown it’s actually barrel-shaped and oriented so that we’re looking down the barrel. It only appears to be shaped like a ring due to our viewing angle."
The Slate piece also features a fascinating video of what goes on inside the ring, which took 90 years and a Eureka! moment to discover.
So, you want to see the Ring Nebula? Here are some tips:

If you have access to a telescope, the Ring Nebula is easily visible in the summer and autumn sky. 

1. Go somewhere dark. I mean really dark, with as little light pollution as possible. I live about 25 minutes away from the nearest city (Exeter, in Devon UK), and it's super dark here at night compared to in the city - but even darker further out. Many of us live in light-polluted areas. Also, get away from tall buildings and trees - aim for a wide expanse of park, or better still a bare hill to get the most out of stargazing, because chimneys and trees can obstruct good views of constellations, and you'll need those to find your way around the sky.

2. Get a good night guide. If you're a stargazer and don't have a copy of the 2016 edition of the Collins guide, I recommend getting one ASAP, as it will help with identification immeasurably. The guide maps the sky according to the time of year, so constellations are relatively easy to pick out depending on the month, and gives descriptions of what you can see depending on whether you are looking north or south, using star maps and charts of planets.

Even if you can get internet access in the field, I wouldn't recommend using your phone to look these things up, because looking at the bright screen will mess up your night vision. A gentle torch and the guide are much better aids (my telescope comes with a red LED light on the battery power pack, which I use to consult the guide from time to time). Seriously, the guide is an essential item.

Modelling the Collins guide, like a true geek
Next, look for the constellation Lyra - so-called because it looks like an upside-down lyre, i.e. like this:

The constellation Lyra, image from MAAS
Consult the guide if you need a hand. Can't find it? Look for nearby constellations on the star map first, then move along. You'll soon get the hang of this. Next, use the constellation to find where the Nebula is - at the top in the image above, see? Apparently you don't need a particularly powerful telescope to do this. Marvel at the most distant object you've likely seen so far in your lifetim - that's what it was for me. Enjoy!!

3. Be patient! If you don't find it, try and try again, or look for something else - the Vega star in the same constellation is the fifth brightest in the sky, and I never tire of looking at the moon through a lens.

4. Stargazing doesn't just happen at night. Use cloudy nights to learn what different constellations look like, which will make finding them at night much easier. This is also a great activity to do with children. Constellations often come with their own stories rooted in history, which can also be fun to learn: in this case the popularity of the lyre when the constellation was named, as the ancient Greeks believed that Apollo gave one to his son, Orpheus, who used it to try to raise his wife from the dead..

When we look up at the night sky, we are looking into the past, at stars that no longer exist and light that has travelled across space for light years to reach us.. And it's the same with constellations: why they were named what they are, how they were mapped by ancient civilizations: these things draw us closer to the past. So marvel at what you see, but don't get overwhelmed. There is much to learn when it comes to astronomy, but we can only get there by learning one constellation, one nebula at a time.

Saturday, 30 July 2016

We are made of star stuff. We are also made of microbes.

I drink tea from a giant mug. For repelling zombies, obviously
If you haven't been following developments on the human microbiome, you're missing out on some fascinating discoveries. I'm currently rereading microbial researcher Rob Knight's Follow Your Gut: The Enormous Impact of Tiny Microbes (pictured above), and if you haven't seen Dr Knight's TED talk already then you're in for a treat. You'll find it at this website, plus an excerpt from Follow Your Gut.

I've seen a lot of theories floating about how eating certain foods will improve your microbiome or how not having a natural birth and giving a baby antibiotics will destroy your baby's microbes (true in a sense, but they also rapidly grow back again). As Knight says, it's important not to jump to conclusions at such early stages in the research, although he does draw some broad potential conclusions himself, which is fine of course as he's a scientist interpreting data, not someone trying to sell you a fad diet.
It’s tricky to add up all this early evidence into a prescription for lowering your child’s risk of asthma and allergies. I’d sum up the recommendations like this: have a dog (but make sure you start early, ideally prenatally), live on a farm where your kids are exposed to cows and straw, avoid antibiotics early in life, and perhaps take probiotics and breastfeed (although the evidence for those last two is preliminary at present). In general, exposure to diverse microbes, whether through older siblings, pets, or livestock — or through good old-fashioned playing outdoors — seems to help, even if scientists are still sorting out the specific microbes involved. It may be that diversity itself is most important.

I also recommend this Atlantic article on how microbes make malnutrition worse, and how scientists are looking at tackling that, this Smithsonian piece on how microbes adapt to make us stronger, and this Conversation piece about how microbes living in extreme climates can teach us about ourselves.

Finally, a recent study has confirmed a long-running hypothesis: that all of life on Earth descended from a microbe, which has been traced back to four billion years ago. That's pretty impressive. So thanks, clostridia bacteria et al - and to all the scientists involved in this discovery! I can't wait to find out more.

Monday, 25 July 2016

What's The Best Bug Repellent According to Science?

River dips and wild swimming is what summers are for.. Until.. ouch!
Citronella essential oil? Eucalyptus incense? Soaking yourself in garlic?! What's the best anthropod repellent? As ever, I approached this topic with a determination to avoid the woo and discover what might really stop those bugs from taking chunks out of me all summer.

Now, don't get me wrong: I love bugs. But sometimes they can be bitey little buggers! (sorry) If you've been following this blog, or know me in real life, you'll know that I love hiking, river walks and wild swimming. Unfortunately for me, I am one of the 20% of people who are very tasty to the little critters that frequent these place. Some people aren't, depending on factors including blood type, metabolism, skin bacteria and genetics. Lucky them.

Living in Britain means that I don't need to worry about repelling disease-carrying mosquitoes, just every other biting bug we have on this little island. Thankfully there is some sound research to support various options for repelling bugs, which we'll look at here.

Item 1: DEET (diethyltoluamide) is the most common active ingredient used in bug repelling sprays, and it is highly effective. Used safely (i.e. applied to skin at the correct dose), DEET is your best bet when it comes to repelling pesky mosquitoes, and it is safe - in fact it's toxicology has been more closely scrutinized than any other bug repellent. Still, some people find that it irritates their skin, and if you're not so worried about deterring disease-spreading mosquitoes (like me, because I live in England) then there are other repellents worth trying.
Note: The following suggestions are not recommended as effective repellents for use by travellers to disease endemic areas, except PMD.

Plant-based repellents are the alternative option people often turn to, citing that they are 'natural', which is a somewhat dubious claim since many drugs are derived from nature and plant-based repellents still need to be processed/manufactured in order to use them. Also, PBRs can cause dermatitis when applied to skin. Nevertheless, PRBs may be less environmentally damaging*, and can be very cost-effective, so let's look at what researchers have found.

Item 2: Citronella
Essential oils and extracts of citronella (Cymbopogon nardus in Europe and North America) are commonly used as ingredients of plant-based mosquito repellents, despite there being very little research into citronella as an arthropod repellent. What we do know is that citronella-based repellents can protect us from mosquitoes, but only for about two hours after application, unless a specific formula is used. For example, citronella is as effective dose for dose as DEET, but the oil evaporates quickly which reduces how long it lasts and its efficacy. There are ways to increase the longevity of the oil, but this means that protection depends entirely on the composition of the repellent, so it's not as simple as buying any citronella-based repellent on the shelf.
Item 3: Neem
Neem has been tested for repellency against range of arthropods, with somewhat different results. Some field studies from India have shown very high efficacy of neem-based preparations, while other research has found only intermediate repellency. It's likely that undetermined variables in these studies changed the way the repellents worked when they were tested, but in any case we do know that neem offers some protection against nuisance biting mosquitoes and other bugs, even if we're not sure how to attain high efficacy from neem.

Midges love shady areas - so use a good repellent!
Plant-based oils that have shown some repellent efficacy are coconut oil, soybean oil, palm nut oils and andiroba oil, although all of these oils are far less effective than DEET. The most effective oils include thyme oil, geraniol, peppermint oil, cedar oil, patchouli and clove, as they have been found to 'repel malaria, filarial and yellow fever vectors for a period of 60-180 mins'. Again, fixatives or careful formulation are required to improve the longevity of these oils,

Item 4: Lemon Eucalyptus
Corymbia citriodora, also known as lemon eucalyptus, is a potent natural repellent extracted from the leaves of lemon eucalyptus trees. It was found that waste distillate remaining after hydro-distillation of the essential oil was far more effective at repelling mosquitoes than the essential oil itself: Para-menthane 3, 8 diol (PMD) is found in small quantities in the essential oil from the leaves of Corymbia citriodora and offers very high protection from a broad range of bugs over several hours, The essential oil on its own is only repellent for about one hour. PMD is the only plant-based repellent that is advocated for use in disease endemic areas by the CDC (Centres for Disease Control), 'due to its proven clinical efficacy to prevent malaria and is considered to pose no risk to human health'. 

Item 5: Garlic
Despite numerous news articles shouting about its efficacy and contrary to what most alternative remedy websites will tell you, the consumption of garlic is not effective at repelling mosquitoes, and although rubbing it on your skin has 'moderate' efficacy as a bug deterrent, it is not the most effective repellent available, although it probably is the smelliest.

Item 6: Chickens
Yes, you read that right! New research has found that the smell of chickens led to a 90-95% reduction in mosquito counts. It didn't work with all types of mosquitoes, but it's an exciting finding all the same. Since the same chemical compounds that create the chicken odour are also found in citrus peels and Mexican marigolds, this is even something you could safely experiment with at home. At least until eau de poulet hits the shelves, of course..

So, Which Products Are The Best?
The best guide I've found for this is by the independent, nonprofit organization Consumer Reports, who tested several repellent products using live mosquitoes (click the link to see the video of this in action -  you have to admire their dedication!), They recommend products containing DEET, oil of lemon eucalyptus, and picaridin (derived from the black pepper plant) as the most effective at deterring biters. I recommend choosing a product from the suggestions on their website, or else look up bug repellent formulas yourself to see whether they contain the effective DEET-alternatives listed in this blog post. Research like this takes a little time and effort but is well worth it for getting a product that works and for learning to spot the difference between science and woo.

I'm aiming to compile my own list of the best products at some point, so watch this blog space. 

Also, beware of the anti-science crowd, who serve to profit from lies. For example, Bite Blocker is a commercial preparation that appears to be an effective bug repellent, however the company's website tells lies about safety of DEET, claiming that it damages brains (citation needed!) and other scaremongering nonsense, so I would not support or advocate them, personally. 
*Environmental Impact
Which has a lower environmental impact, plant based repellents or synthetic molecules? All of these options need processing, and even naturally-derived plant extracts require agrichemicals to grow them, distillation, extraction... On the other hand, if carefully practiced, cash cropping of plants used for repellents can provide a vital source of income for small scale farmers in developing countries, and can be done sustainably, e.g. when planted in intercropping systems to prevent soil erosion. More research to do at home? Yay!

Sunday, 17 July 2016

The Power of Looking Up: How Astronomy Can Show Us The Bigger Picture

 Waxing gibbous moon, July 2016
What do you see when you look up at night? 

The first time I looked through a telescope, all I saw was stars, but they were stars like I'd never seen them before. Due to light pollution, many of us cannot see what our ancestors once saw when they looked up to the heavens, and no matter how many high-res pictures of planets and stars you see, no matter how many space documentaries you watch, there is nothing like seeing what's out there with your own eyes - well, with aid of a telescope, at least.

The image of our moon pictured above was taken with a phone camera held against the eyepiece of a Celestron Nexstar 350 telescope, but the picture doesn't show the clarity of the moon seen through the eyepiece, which I'm hoping to capture using a better camera. Luckily, you don't need a fancy telescope to be able to stargaze, though I am lucky enough to have access to one, and will be sharing more with you using that here.

So what did I see through the telescope that was so humbling? Carl Sagan often referred to the Earth as 'the pale blue dot', and looking at the moon so close up, in such detail, at Lunar craters and maria and old lava flows, Sagan's words really come to life. Perhaps this is why so many great astronomers were also philosophers, inventors, poets. As you gaze at our only permanent satellite, you begin to imagine what the planet Earth must look like to those lucky enough to go to space and see it from a great distance. You get a tiny glimpse of some of what every astronaut must feel when s/he sees this mote of dust we call home, just one planet in one solar system in one galaxy, among the billions of planets, stars and galaxies that make up the universe. It is truly awe-inspiring and humbling, and something I believe every child and adult should experience. All you need is a basic telescope, and a place to stargaze - the further away from light pollution, the better.

My two children are too young to stay up and explore the universe this way, but they are learning a lot through various books and songs (expect a post on this soon), and of course through asking plenty of questions. We've also followed British astronaut Tim Peake's journey, as the kids have been interested in the International Space Station since we saw it fly over at Christmas. Major Peake recently returned from a trip to space where he lived on the ISS in order to conduct crucial research on microbes and blood vessels (among other things), where he ran the London marathon, and took some truly astounding photographs (follow Major Peake's Facebook page to see these and follow his journey). A quick look at his fan page shows how much we love astronauts, how they inspire us, and that we take great pride in knowing that someone from close to home has been in space. And it all starts with looking up, which is why I'm ending this post with Sagan's view of the power of astronomy, taken from his TV show Cosmos. When he speaks of the 'Pale Blue Dot' he is referring to a photograph of the Earth that was taken on 14 February 1990, by the Voyager 1 space probe from a record distance of about 6 billion kilometers. This photograph changed the way people viewed themselves and each other: it was an image that changed the world.

Can you spot it?
More astrophotography from me soon.

Look again at that dot. That's here. That's home. That's us.
On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives. The aggregate of our joy and suffering, thousands of confident religions, ideologies, and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilization, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every mother and father, hopeful child, inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every "superstar," every "supreme leader," every saint and sinner in the history of our species lived there--on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam.
The Earth is a very small stage in a vast cosmic arena. Think of the rivers of blood spilled by all those generals and emperors so that, in glory and triumph, they could become the momentary masters of a fraction of a dot. Think of the endless cruelties visited by the inhabitants of one corner of this pixel on the scarcely distinguishable inhabitants of some other corner, how frequent their misunderstandings, how eager they are to kill one another, how fervent their hatreds.

Our posturings, our imagined self-importance, the delusion that we have some privileged position in the Universe, are challenged by this point of pale light. Our planet is a lonely speck in the great enveloping cosmic dark. In our obscurity, in all this vastness, there is no hint that help will come from elsewhere to save us from ourselves.

The Earth is the only world known so far to harbor life. There is nowhere else, at least in the near future, to which our species could migrate. Visit, yes. Settle, not yet. Like it or not, for the moment the Earth is where we make our stand.

It has been said that astronomy is a humbling and character-building experience. There is perhaps no better demonstration of the folly of human conceits than this distant image of our tiny world. To me, it underscores our responsibility to deal more kindly with one another, and to preserve and cherish the pale blue dot, the only home we've ever known.

- Carl Sagan

Monday, 11 July 2016

Baby-Led Weaning for the Mini Vegan

Arwyn is unimpressed by heavy Farmer's Market veg.
This is a topic I get asked about a lot, as a vegan and a fan of baby-led weaning.

The basic ‘radical’ notion behind baby-led weaning is that the baby can learn to feed herself/ himself instead of being spoon-fed. The term was coined by Gill Rapley, who wrote Baby-led Weaning: Helping Your Baby to Love Good Food, an assuring guide to baby’s transition from milk to solids.

In her book Rapley argues that spoon-feeding can be the same as forcing food down the baby’s throat and can teach him or her to overeat. There is some science to support this theory, which I cover in depth in the Diet and Nutrition chapter in my book. There is also evidence that store-bought purees are not nutritionally dense enough to be the only food that babies are fed, so it's worth dabbling in baby-led weaning even if you do want/need to use purees. In contrast to spoon-feeding, baby-led weaning means offering the baby finger foods which encourages him or her to learn the skills of chewing and swallowing, promotes hand-mouth co-ordination, helps baby to decide what to eat and how much of it to eat, and gives the opportunity to experience different textures of foods. 

There’s a misconception that because babies can eat solids from six months old, they should be eating them from that age. This used to be four months old until the guidelines were changed, which is why baby food jars still state ‘suitable for babies from four months old’. My baby girl was seven months old when our health visitor insisted on knowing ‘how many jars of puree she was eating a day’. Apparently the ideal answer was ‘two or three’. I explained that Arwyn was not ready for solid foods yet as she could not sit up alone and she was showing no interest in foods when they were presented to her - all NHS guidelines:

Every baby is an individual, but there are three clear signs that, together, show your baby is ready for solid foods alongside breast milk or formula. It's very rare for these signs to appear together before your baby is six months old.
1. They can stay in a sitting position and hold their head steady.
2. They can co-ordinate their eyes, hands and mouth so they can look at the food, pick it up and put it in their mouth, all by themselves.
3. They can swallow food. Babies who are not ready will push their food back out with their tongue, so they get more round their face than they do in their mouths.
The health visitor called over another member of staff and told her to ‘book this lady in for a weaning class’. At the time, Arwyn had been exclusively breastfed and she was in the top 1% of chubby babies in the country for her age. Our doctor had described her as ‘clearly thriving’. She still is.

Raven tucking into a banana

Of course, most health visitors are full of useful advice, but in this case I was unlucky with the people assigned to me after birth. So, I didn’t attend the weaning class and I set about doing my own research, but unfortunately for the vegan mother there are few resources available on baby-led weaning vegan babies. So, what did I do?
I started by including Arwyn in family mealtimes by sitting her at the table with us in her high chair, and offering her a plate of finger foods, even when they ended up all over the floor and rarely in her mouth. To begin with she was more interested in the plate than anything else, but she also watched us keenly, and one day she suddenly scooped up a handful of spicy dahl and rice from my plate and happily munched away on it. I was so relieved that I had trusted my instincts and allowed her learn to feed herself, instead of spooning food into her.

Now for the technical bits…
  • Ensure that your baby has boiled and cooled water from a cup with her food, to avoid potential problems with digestion or constipation.
  • I offer my baby girl a milk feed before we sit down at the table so that she doesn’t fill up on solids out of hunger for breastmilk.
  • Never leave your baby unattended at the table; babies can choke on any types of food, no matter how small or soft they may be. Babies learn from watching you chew and swallow your food, so enjoy sharing these precious family moments together.
  • Never force your baby to eat. S/he will get there, in her/his own time. If you're worried, I recommend the book My Child Won't Eat! by pediatrician Carlos Gonzalez.
Try offering one of each group at every meal so that your baby can choose between textures and colours. Foods which are naturally soft, like avocado chunks, can certainly be offered on a spoon if your baby has trouble picking them up (Arwyn loves avocado and will happily lean over and eat it out my extended hand when she sees it on my plate), but try to avoid forcing food into your baby’s mouth with the spoon. Half of the fun of weaning for your baby is letting her/him explore smells and textures as well as taste, at their own pace. It makes a mess, but so does trying to spoon-feed a baby something she/he doesn’t want to eat, and it's worth it in the long run.

 Let your baby experiment with varied combinations of:

CHUNKS of steamed broccoli, steamed parsnips, steamed carrots, steamed swede, steamed turnip, steamed green beans, baked yams, baked pumpkins, boiled chard, fried tofu
STRIPS of steamed kale, raw lettuce, dried figs or dried apricots soaked in water (to make them softer/easier to chew)
SLICES of raw cucumber, raw avocado, raw apple, raw pear, toast with vegan margarine/hummus/avocado spread etc
MASHED potatoes mixed with tofu, potatoes with nutritional yeast, swede with broccoli, cooked lentils with boiled carrots, sweet potato with courgette, porridge with banana, cooked kidney/other beans with rice, cooked chickpeas with rice, boiled spinach, boiled cabbage – breastmilk can be added to any mashed food combinations to make them more alluring to baby

Also – brown rice cooked with cumin seeds and peas, plain quinoa or couscous cooked with olive oil, larger amounts of alternative milks as baby gets older, then other wheat and oat products..

Although some of this may seem like a lot of cooking, I promise you it isn’t! We eat well as a family and we tend to give Arwyn a small plate of whatever we are eating for breakfast/lunch/dinner. On the rare occasions when there is not enough on my plate that is suitable for her, steaming a few extra foods takes very little time and doesn’t require any special equipment- a saucepan and colander will work if you don’t have a basic steamer. Raw foods, hummus, tahini, and spreads are also easy and nutritious options, also ideal for when you have to eat out.

Once you get to grips with it, baby-led weaning is much easier than trying to force foods into your baby. You can also rest assured that your baby knows what she/he needs to eat and will be able to control her food intake herself, which is also healthier for her in the long-run.

Arwyn’s weaning changed what mealtimes mean for the whole family. Weaning onto solids is a tough transition for your baby to make so it’s important that you let your baby take her/his own time with it. At 9 months Arwyn is now a confident eater and she relishes mealtimes. Her favourite foods vary week by week, and she has enjoyed all the foods I have listed above at different times. 


I wrote this article when Arwyn was a wee young thing, so chubby from her love of breastmilk that we made the cover of a magazine:

She is now a strong, healthy little girl who loves climbing, painting and animals. We used the same method described above to wean Raven as well, and both children have healthy appetites and varied diets at the ages of two and five. 

So, good luck and have fun! Those baby years fly by so fast..

Sunday, 10 July 2016

Bug Life: Identification on the Fly

Learning to identify insects is something I know I haven't spent enough time on, but have always wanted to be better at. Having children is a good motivator for stopping to look closely at the bugs we discover, and is also a great way to help children to nurture a relationship with the local environment. I think it can also bring out dormant conservationist traits in our little ones, as entire worlds of winged creatures are brought to life through our careful observations and the questions that naturally follow thereafter.

Insect identification is a slow process of learning if you've never done it before, as we learn to appreciate each unique creature as more than just an insect or vague 'thing with wings', to appreciate its role in local ecology (Why is it found here? Why does it keep flying back to that specific plant? Does it like to eat the midges by the river?) and also its place on this pale blue dot we all inhabit.

Meadow brown butterfly

The meadow brown butterfly is commonly found across the UK, in woodlands, meadows, farmlands, town gardens, the uplands and along coastlines - so really pretty much everywhere! These butterflies have those exquisitely evolved eyes on their wings known as eyespots that are designed to deter predators.

We found this little fella in the road while out hiking. I picked him up to put him in the nearby foliage, but sadly he had a leg missing and was unable to fly. The kids were very concerned for him, but also reassured each other that 'mother butterfly' would find him and nurse him back to health again (subsequent butterfly sightings on this hiking trip were punctuated with calls of: 'mother butterfly! Go back that way, little butterfly is looking for you! He needs you!' I have so much love for my little nature lovers.)

Image source
Beautiful demoiselle damselfly

The beautiful demoielle damselfly (really - that's it's actual name) is found along streams and rivers, particularly those with sandy or gravel bottoms. We came across these in one of my favourite hiking spots, EggesfordDemoiselle damselflies fly from May to the end of August, and 'demoiselle' (pronounced: dem-moi-zelle) means 'unmarried girl' or 'young woman' in French. This female damselfly is a ninja at camouflage:

Can you see her?
While the male damselfly aims to stand out to her, shining a brilliant metallic blue colour:

Beautiful blue
Finally, not all bugs are found in the wild...

Stag beetle

Female stag beetle
We spotted this lovely female stag beetle on a busy roadside here in Devon, much to my daughter's delight. Apparently they are nationally scarce in nature due to declining habitat such as hedgerows, orchards and woodland edges, but they are more common here in the south of England, so we are very lucky to come across her. Fun fact: Their impressive antler-like headgear is where they get the name 'stag' from. Sadly I only discovered later that the advice to follow if you spot an adult stag beetle outside of its natural habitat is to:

'Give them some soft fruit or sugared water and move it out of harms way but the best thing is to let them get on and find a mate! If you have found stag beetle larvae please rebury them with some of the wood and soil in a shady undisturbed area.'

Poor little lady, she was nowhere near any greenery. I hope she found a mate alright anyway, and will make sure we relocate any future discoveries! I logged this encounter in the Great Stag Hunt survey to help with their research. Want to help save the wonderful stag beetle? Help to create a stag beetle sanctuary using this handy guide by the People's Trust for Endangered Species. Don't you just love science??

We've been learning to identify bugs with help from friends who know a lot more about bugs than I do, and also this handy Collins guide that my entomologist friend Anna recommended. Also, this bug identification chart by Buglife is good for browsing creature discoveries with little ones.

What have you identified recently?