Can’t see the wood for the trees? – Forestry Commission launches new app

For many of us it’s difficult enough identifying fully grown trees let alone identifying young trees or shrubs in a woodland setting; a problem woodland managers, foresters, ecologists and the like have grabbled with for years – how do you identify which naturally established plants you want to keep and which ones to remove?  Now the Forestry Commission has turned to a technical solution to help in woodland management. It has just launched an app at the Forest Research show. Forestry Commission’s Matt Parratt said ” …..The app allows people to quickly and accurately identify self-set trees and shrubs regardless of their age. They can also record field notes and locations using GPS without a mobile signal. This is always going to be more efficient and helpful than revisiting a site”. So potential carbon savings there too. The app costs £1.49 and can be downloaded from the AppStore and Google Play.

Does a blaze of berries signal a hard winter ahead?

The combination of a wet spring and a sizzling summer seems to have encouraged a particularly large crop of berries of all types this year. Blackberries, elderberries, damsons, sloes, rosehips and haws drip from the hedgerows providing a beautiful show and plenty of food for the birds. As the indian summer continues – the thought of winter seems a long way off – and mercifully no need to turn the central heating on yet, and long may it last. However, should we worry that a long cold winter is ahead of us? Well, apparently, whilst folklore and old wives tales might have us believe it, there doesn’t seem to be much scientist evidence to link an abundance of berries with weather conditions. There does, however, appear to be more evidence that berries are good for our health – although may be not when made into sloe gin, damson jam or blackberry and apple crumble! However, damson puree is really good on porridge… recipe below.

Blackberries and damsons

Damson puree recipe

  • 600g damsons
  • 200g caster sugar
  • Water to cover

Put the damson and sugar in a pan and cover with water. Bring to a gentle simmer and cook for 30-40 mins (keep an eye on it to check that it doesn’t burn – more water can be added if necessary). Cool and then remove stones – they should have separated but lots of recipes claim the stones should pop to the top – they don’t all obey and it’s all a bit messy – pick out what you have the patience to do and them resort to a sieve (still a bit laborious – but worth it). Check the sweetness and add more sugar if necessary.

Either store in the fridge or if you are making greater quantities – bottle in jars, or freeze.

Great on pancakes, poured over ice-cream, or used in cakes.

Energy focused social investment fund Ignite announce its ‘Big Energy Idea’ winners

Ignite yesterday announced the names of 10 successful entrepreneurs who they will be working with to tackle energy challenges, and make real, sustainable change in communities. 

  • The Big Energy Idea will provide 10 social entrepreneurs with an individual package of investment readiness support and the potential to access a minimum £50,000 investment over the next year
  • 10 successful ‘Big Energy Ideas’, including local business Sust-it were announced on 30th April, at an event held in Windsor
  • The Big Energy Idea is run by Ignite, a fund that will invest £10 million over 10 years, backed by Centrica

Among the winners is Ross Lammas, founder of Sust-it, a family-run price comparison site that enables consumers to make informed buying choices based on energy usage and running costs of electrical products.

An individual package of support will be provided to the social entrepreneurs, Ross included, helping them gain investment and grow their ventures. The fund has been established by Ignite Social Enterprise, a social investment fund backed by Centrica plc, which is focused on energy-related businesses and enterprises.

As part of the tailored business support on offer (which brings together industry expertise from The Henley Business School, The Good Analyst, UnLtd and confidence coach Peter Nicholas) the primary objective will be to get each venture investment ready in order to grow its social impact.  The businesses will be able to gain access to between £50,000 and £2 million from the Ignite fund.

Ross Lammas of Sust-it, said: “Becoming one of the successful Big Energy Ideas will make a huge difference to us. We’ll get additional expertise from the energy industry to build our future strategy, and hopefully, investment at some point in the next year. This will enable us to help those on low income save money and also to improve everyone’s energy literacy.

Centrica CEO Sam Laidlaw, who announced the winning ideas, said: “I believe that the answers to society’s challenges do not lie solely with the private sector or the public sector, but with social entrepreneurs, in communities, and in cross-sector partnerships. I am passionate about the potential of each of these business – supported by us – to find some of these answers.”

Ignite is investing time, money and support into energy-related social enterprises, and is aiming to invest a minimum £10 million over 10 years with investments ranging between £50,000 and £2 million. The profits from Ignite’s investments will be reinvested and recycled back to help more social enterprises and ventures grow and scale up their work. Ignite has already committed £3.4 million of the fund across four projects that will be creating social change in the UK.

Energy saving tips for students

Student accommodation has come a long way in recent years – the purpose built – en-suite, well equipped, serviced flats that many first year students experience is very different from the cold, damp rooms I remember.  No worries about energy bills or how many showers you can take, it’s usually all included in the rent.  So it can come of something as shock when students move on to house sharing, and realise that you have pay for electricity, gas and even water!  Some canny landlords include an ‘extra’ cost for utility bills – requiring payment even during the long holidays.  Beware of this, one student told me his house of 8 were all asked to pay £11 per week for utility bills – paying the landlord £4576, they did the bills themselves, paid £25 per month and saved £2,000.

However, there are many students living in damp, poorly insulated houses – and all too aware of the cost of energy.  I’ve heard stories of students, like older people, not daring to put the heating on because of the cost.  With many students wanting to grab the best houses for next year it’s worth reminding them to look at the heating system, and look for any energy guzzling appliances and to think about the energy bills with any property.  In the meantime, Green Choices have put together some tips for students on saving energy, saving money and staying warm!

  1. Check out the energy performance of any property and likely bills before you sign anything. The less you have to pay for heating the more you can spend going out!
  2. Get that boiler working right – make sure the landlord has it serviced and that it is running correctly before you move in – it’s a legal requirement! Get familiar with how the heating system works.
  3. Don’t be tempted to save on the gas by plugging in an electric heater. You’ll be clicking up the kilowatts and the £’s, not to mention the CO2 emissions.
  4. Boring …  but do as your parents say and put on an extra jumper before turning up the thermostat.
  5. Cook in bulk or together – saves on washing up as well!
  6. If you have a tumble dryer– check the filter is clear, and water container (if a condenser model) emptied. Don’t overload and keep use to a minimum. See how much one costs to run at Sust-it
  7. Stop draughts – Pull the curtains – and ask your landlord for thermal linings (worth a try) or pick up some heavy retro curtains from the charity shop.
  8. Defrost the freezer – it will be easier to open as a result!
  9. Turn things off! Chargers, lights, straighteners, TV’s – it all adds up.
  10. Wash your clothes at a low temperature and go easy on the detergent. Share your loads so you always do a full wash.

Fancy a conservation holiday in Scotland?

If lying by the pool in the sun doesn’t float your boat, then how about an eco-holiday with a difference? Fancy doing something active and at the same time help restore some of Scotland’s wilderness?

You can do just that with Trees for Life as they restore about 1,000 square miles of Caledonian Forest, in the Highlands to the west of Loch Ness and Inverness back to wilderness. Trees for Life is running Conservation Weeks at eight locations in the Highlands between mid-March and November. In addition, to mark the Year of Natural Scotland, Trees for Life is introducing new Wildlife Weeks for conservation volunteers who also want to spend extra time learning about and observing the Caledonian Forest’s outstanding wildlife. The specially-designed Wildlife Weeks include day trips to the Isle of Skye to see white-tailed eagles, the third largest eagle in the world; to Aigas Field Centre at Beauly, Inverness-shire to see the beavers living on the loch; and the opportunity to feed wild boar at Trees for Life’s Dundreggan Estate in Glen Moriston to the west of Loch Ness.

The work can be physically demanding, so volunteers need a reasonable level of fitness, but the Conservation Weeks suit all abilities and anyone over 18 years old can take part. There is no upper age limit. “We have pledged to establish one million more trees by planting and natural regeneration within the next five years. Every volunteer who takes part in our Conservation Weeks will be helping to achieve something very special,” said Alan Watson Featherstone.

You might want to combine the trip with a week in a Scottish log cabin or cosy cottage, the EcoHolidayShop has lots to choose from with green credentials.

BBC Wildlife Magazine has voted Trees for Life’s Conservation Weeks as one of the Top 10 Conservation Holidays in the World, a green choice of a holiday for sure.  For more details, see www.treesforlife.org.uk or call 0845 458 3505.

Why not explore Britain’s best cottage holiday destinations this summer

On a dull January day, nothing beats the blues like booking a cottage for a short break or summer holiday. The UK has some great holiday destinations and a wide range of self-catering options, many in our beautiful National Parks or Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty.  And, although it’s early to think of a dip in the sea, how about considering the cleanliness of the beach and the water quality? A must if you have young children. You can search for Blue Flag beaches on Cottage World, as well a looking for properties in National Parks, holiday cottages that allow dogs, or are near a pub! There’s lots of choice, from a Grade II house in Pembrokeshire that sleeps 10, with it’s own hot tub to a cosy barn conversion in Exmoor for just 2.  

How to spot Ash dieback?

Out walking the dog this morning, I thought I would look for how many ash trees I could spot along my usual route and imagine the impact on the landscape if they fell prey to ash dieback fungal disease or Chalara fraxinea to give it it’s proper name. Ash dieback, has been found across Europe since it was first identified in 1992 after a large number of ash trees in Poland were reported to have died. If it takes hold in the UK, it could have a devastating impact on our countryside as ash is our third most common species of broadleaf tree, and provides an important habitat for flora and fauna.  It is quicker growing than oak. So over the short distance of my walk I spotted at least eight mature trees, and one that appeared dead, it looked as though it had been dead for some time, but how would I know if had ash dieback?  What do the symptoms of ash dieback look like?  Time to consult the Woodland trust website. Helpfully they have a video showing the symptoms of Chalara fraxinea on young saplings, and a leaflet with photographs of the disease on mature trees, which I will consult in more detail.  The government have been criticized for not acting quickly enough to ban imports of ash trees, as the Horticultural Trade Association raised this as a serious issue in 2009.

The government have been criticized for not acting quickly enough to ban imports of ash trees, as the Horticultural Trade Association raised this as a serious issue in 2009.  This isn’t, of course, the only disease to threaten our native species Sudden Oak Death (Phytophthora ramorum) was first recorded in the UK in 2003, and Natural England have a list of over 30 plant diseases of pests that may require intervention in order to protect England’s biodiversity.  In September 2012 Natural England established a plant disease and pest prevention control scheme.  Let’s hope it isn’t too late.

How can you reduce your energy bills?

Now that the clocks have changed and the chances of a late Indian summer diminished, thoughts of staying warm and saving money come to mind. And whilst high energy prices rather than the worry of climate change may be the main motivator in reducing our energy bills, for some, reducing their ‘carbon footprint’ will be what it’s all about.  So, it won’t be saving money in order to afford flying to a ski resort in the Alps, it’s about looking at the bigger picture and reducing our overall impact. The complexities of how you can develop a thriving economy whilst reducing our carbon emissions are for those with bigger brains than mine, but it seems not Lord Heseltine’s: “No stone unturned in the pursuit of growth”  makes no mention of the need to create a greener economy – not even the words “green shoots” appear!

And it’s surprising how much energy we still waste, and at the same alarming that people are scared to use their heating because of cost. So what can you do to reduce your energy usage?  Nothing revolutionary to offer here, just some suggestions…..

Stop the heat escaping if you can –  free loft insulation is still available in many areas.

  • Check draughts around doors and windows and fit draught excluders
  • Turn off appliances and lights when not in use and don’t forget all those ‘phone and laptop chargers left plugged in.
  • Try to use appliances such as dishwashers and washing machines only when full.
  • Fit curtains with thermal linings.
  • I don’t want to say put on a cardy and some thick socks – but and the same time don’t be tempted by the “Hollyoaks” effect and expect to swan around in a bikini – TV studio’s are hot places!

Free range kids

The sign ‘Free range children’ on the entrance to Glewstone Court, country house hotel, has always made me smile, as does the sign ‘slow children’ – are they just not that bright? Seriously though, it’s good to see the sustainable transport charity Sustran’s new campaign calling for measures to be taken to allow kids to play outside and move around their local area more safely, freely and independently. Specifically, they’re asking for the law to be changed to make 20 miles per hour the maximum speed limits in residential areas across the UK and for further investment in walking and cycling routes, particularly to school.

Thinking back to childhood, the memories that stick are riding your bike, visiting the park on your own and being out and about with friends.  Sustrans claims that of today’s adults 70% experienced most of their adventures outdoors.

Contrast this with today’s children. Top of their list is also playing on their bikes and exploring new and unfamiliar places. But only 29% are experiencing adventures outdoors, often closely supervised by adults. It’s little wonder childhood obesity is growing.

Heat pumps prove a big draw at eco open homes event

Taking in part in the recent eco-open homes event which coincided with the nationwide Heritage Open Days proved again to be a worthwhile experience, with lots of interest in our ground source heat pump.

Ground Source Heat Pumps

I must admit, opening our house up to strangers, is not something we really look forward to, but it’s a big incentive to tidy up and it is good to discuss the pro’s and con’s of energy efficiency measures with others; whether it’s about saving money and reducing energy bills or about saving the planet. There was some interest in the wind turbines, and in the way the house was built and designed re-using materials, maximising solar gain and minimising heat loss, but the heat pumps – both ground source and air source certainly seemed to be an area of growing interest. We installed our heat pump seven years ago as part of our new-build eco-house. It involved sinking 160 metres of pipe in two loops 1 metre down out into the field. The actual heat pump bit sits in the utility room, looks a bit like a fridge freezer and works like a fridge in reverse! It provides all the hot water and heating; underfloor downstairs and radiators upstairs. The questions most people asked apart from How does the heat pump work? Were – How efficient is it? Well, we know that for every one unit of electricity put in we get about 4 units out and that it performs well – but we can only go on our experience of running a heat pump to service a house built with high insulation values, so investing in insulation measures has to be a starting point for most homeowners. Another frequently asked question was, how noisy are heat pumps? I know some people have had noise issues with air-source heat pumps, but our ground source is fairly quiet running and no more intrusive than your average central heating boiler. There is obviously some debate about how green heat pumps actually are given that they still rely on carbon producing electricity to run on (even if they are using it more efficiently). One solution is to install PV solar panels to generate some of the electricity then they are a greener alternative to oil.

And heat pumps were given a further boost today when the Government published proposals for the long term support for householders who install renewable heating systems such as heat pumps, biomass boilers and solar thermal in their homes. The consultation which ends 7 December 2012, proposes that the Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI) for householders, would be managed by Ofgem, is aimed at any householder seeking to replace their current heating with renewable heating kit or householders who have installed any such technology since 15 July 2009, (shame we were before this!). The plan is that householders will get paid for the heat expected to be produced by their installed technology. The Government have also published consultations on expanding the RHI scheme to commercial, industrial and community customers and also on the Air to Water Heat Pumps and Energy from waste.

See here for further details.