Five porpoises sighted on River Thames
Storm surge could have causeed pod of harbour porpoises to travel uncommonly far up the river
Did my boy ride his first bike into the sunset?
Everything pointed towards my son desperately wanting a bike – so our hopes were high when we bought him his first one
I planned to write this piece in the summer of 2012, ending with a cheesy line about my two-year-old son riding off into the sunset on his new bike, while we proud parents looked on. Sure there would have pitfalls along the way, some reluctance on his part, so much the better for a good story. But what I hadn't counted on was his total apathy to the whole project, which a year-and-a-half later, the odd trundle around the house or frantic bell ringing session aside, still holds true.
We'd decided to get him a balance bike for his second birthday, partly because it's too expensive a purchase to get involved with outside of Christmas or birthdays, but mostly because I was super excited about him riding a bike. He seemed to like coming on the back of mine, not to mention pawing at its oily chain at every available opportunity, so I convinced myself the time was right. More experienced parents will note the rookie first-time parent error of wishing the next stage upon your child rather than cherishing the one they're currently in.
Unwrapping a red BMX at Christmas is easily one of my best childhood memories, though to be fair I was six, so it was no real surprise that my son's only excitement at the great unveiling of his bike was due to him seeing we were excited. Very aware of not wanting to push him and risk him hating it, we spent the first few months tactically leaving the bike in his path, though he'd mostly step over it. On the odd occasion we'd suggest taking it out for a walk with us, he'd oblige for a few strides before asking one of us to carry it the rest of the way.
After a year had passed, I thought it time to canvass some expert opinion. Mike Rose, editor of mountain bike magazine Dirt and father of an actual pedal bike-riding child, told me: "The weight is so important, could it be too heavy?" It was made of steel and definitely weightier than the wooden ones I'd avoided as I'd heard they weren't that durable, especially if used in the wet. Maybe that was it.
So I borrowed an aluminium model by British brand Frog, who cite lightness as their USP. Co-founder Shelley Lawson tells me: "We have two young kids, and lots of friends with young kids, but many of them struggled to ride as their bikes weighed a tonne. Kids that have to propel a heavy piece of steel around the park get exhausted, disheartened and tend to give up pretty fast. It's no fun trying to balance something that weighs nearly as much as you do – especially if you're trying to keep up with the rest of your family!"
The lighter bike certainly made some difference. He found it way easier to manoeuvre, and before long he'd started to cover more ground inside. But he still wasn't fussed about taking it out and we still weren't pushing it, overtly anyway. We did sometimes ship in older bike-riding kids in the hope osmosis would work its magic, but six months down the line we're still no closer to the push and glide "balancing" which gives this stabiliser-free bike its name.
On a side point, I'd asked Lawson why balance bikes were now considered a better way to learn when it was all about stabilisers when I was growing up. She said: "Stabilisers don't teach you to ride a bike. Balance is the most important skill you need to learn in cycling, and using stabilisers delays that learning. By the time a child sheds their stabilisers, they can be pretty tall and their centre of gravity is that much higher. They may also be more fearful of a fall.
"A balance bike is rugged too – you can take it on all sorts of surfaces, through the woods, up and down bumps – whereas stabilisers have very small wheels and don't even work that well on wet grass. They're more of a limitation than an enabler."
I'm of course not seriously worried about my son's lack of cycling, though I am amused at the pointlessness of my early enthusiasm. And he does genuinely love his bike: its bright purple colour, its spoke beads that click when the wheels turn, its bell of course. I just think he sees it as a nice bedroom ornament rather than something to hare about on. His 15-month-old brother on the other hand can already swing his leg over and push it around. The moral of the story? If you can justify the cost, get your children a bike whenever you want and they'll ride it whenever they want.
Andrew Sells is wrong choice for Natural England
The government wants a chairman who can flog nature and have chosen a Tory party donor with a background in investment banking and housing developments
You want to appoint a new chairman for Natural England, the government body responsible for protecting nature.
Do you look for:
a. someone with a background in ecology and a track record of interest in the natural world?
b. A Tory donor with a background in accountancy, investment banking and house building?
Doh! b. of course. What were you thinking?
If you're searching for someone to protect the natural world, Andrew Sells might not be the first person who comes to mind.
But if you're searching for someone to implement your programme of pricing and commodifying nature, of offsetting biodiversity and "unbundling" the living world so that it can be traded on financial markets, of "harnessing City financial expertise to assess the ways that these blended revenue streams and securitisations enhance the return on investment of an environmental bond", he might be just the chap.
He's the preferred candidate of the environment secretary, Owen Paterson. This means that, barring an upset in parliament, he is likely to become the next chair. So what could have prompted Paterson to choose him? It couldn't have anything to do with the £111,000 he gave to the Conservative party in 2010 and 2011, could it? The environment department, Defra, assures us that "all appointments are made on merit and political activity plays no part in the selection process". Phew, that clears it up.
It couldn't be connected to his founding and chairing Linden Homes, could it? Housebuilding projects present some of the major threats to the wildlife and habitats Natural England is supposed to be protecting. Holding the line against damaging developments, in the face of intense political pressure from the government, is one of the agency's stiffest challenges.
It couldn't have anything to do with the fact that Sells, as the conservation ecologist Miles King points out, is treasurer of the Conservative thinktank Policy Exchange, could it? Policy Exchange, like most such groups, refuses to say who funds it. But it was founded and run by senior Conservatives. Its first director was Nick Boles, now the Tory planning minister, whose pronouncements have so enraged conservationists and delighted, er, housebuilders.
Policy Exchange also happens to be the body which, in Owen Paterson's words, "has put [biodiversity] offsetting on the political agenda".
So it could only be because Sells has planted some trees on his hobby farm, a fact which – unlike certain other details – Defra is keen to emphasise. With this credential, he's plainly better placed to run the organisation than people with a background in natural science and decades of experience of defending biodiversity.
If the appointment is not blocked, we can expect Sells to enthusiastically implement Owen Paterson's priorities, which he outlined in a speech last month.
The first of them is "to grow the rural economy". Among the mechanisms he proposes are pricing what he calls "natural capital" (you know, that thing we used to call nature) and offsetting biodiversity. Both are highly controversial, for good reason in my view.
He also announced his intention to allow farmers to start dredging the rivers and streams crossing their land, which ecologists say can have devastating impacts on the structure and life of the riverbed, and can cause flooding downstream.
Where did he make this speech? Oh yes, at Policy Exchange, of which Sells is treasurer.
So perhaps Sells's influence at Natural England will be balanced by people with a different perspective? For whom, perhaps, nature comes first and money comes second? Perhaps. Or perhaps not. The chief executive of Natural England, like Sells, qualified as an accountant.
The deputy chairman, David Hill – the man immediately under Sells on the board – also works as the chairman of the Environment Bank. What is the Environment Bank? It calls itself "a private company working to broker biodiversity offsetting agreements for both developers and landowners." How he can be both deputy chairman of Natural England and chairman of the Environment Bank – whose fortunes are partly dependent on decisions taken by Natural England – is anyone's guess. But it must be OK, because last year the government approved his re-appointment.
Or perhaps Paterson will weigh the advice he receives from Sells against good advice from other sources? Whoops. An article in the Independent last week revealed that, during more than a year in post, Paterson has had just two, cursory meetings with his own chief scientist, Ian Boyd.
Given the quality of Boyd's advice, on badger culling and on the treatment of scientists for example, that might be just as well. Or it would be if Paterson were getting better advice from somewhere else.
What a happy land we're in. And how grateful we should be that the places and wildlife we love are in such safe hands.
The week in wildlife
A fleeing puffin, a hoarding squirrel, a doting hippo - here are this week's finest photos from the natural world
Scientist maps climate of Lord of the Rings
Mount Doom is like LA and the Shire like Lincolnshire, so says a climate model based on author's famously detailed maps
Climate sceptics regularly work themselves into a lather dismissing mainstream climate science as fantasy – but for once they have a point.
A researcher at Bristol University has trained his powerful supercomputer not at predicting the earth's future climate, but on the fictional world of Middle Earth – the backdrop for JRR Tolkien's Lord of the Rings.
To reproduce Middle Earth's climate, Dr Dan Lunt, an expert on past climate change, traced one of Tolkein's famously detailed maps, and then effectively "scanned" that into the university's supercomputer.
"For a model to work, all you need is a map of where continents are, and how high the mountains are," Lunt says. The machines at the Advanced Computing Research Centre then crunched the weather patterns of Rohan, Mirkwood, and the rest of Tolkien's world for about six days, or roughly 70 years in the model.
According to Lunt's analysis, the climate around Mount Doom (where Frodo must take the evil ring of power to be destroyed) is like LA – hot, with the volcanic ash creating a similar effect to LA's infamous smog. Meanwhile the Shire, Frodo and Bilbo Baggins' peaceful neighbourhood, is most similar to Lincolnshire or Leicestershire in the UK.
The Shire's climate is also similar to that of Dunedin in New Zealand, he found, suggesting the director of the blockbuster Lord of the Rings trilogy Peter Jackson chose the wrong locations for filming. "They made a mistake by filming in the north island – they should've filmed in the south island," says Lunt.
Writing under the pen name of Radagast the Brown in a mock paper on the work, Lunt also suggests that:
• Ships sailing for the Undying Lands in the west set off from the Grey Havens due to the prevailing winds in that region.
• Much of Middle Earth would have been covered in dense forest if the landscape had not been altered by dragons, orcs, wizards etc.
• Mordor had an inhospitable climate, even ignoring the effects of Sauron – hot and dry with little vegetation.
But there's a serious point to the exercise, says Lunt,:
"The serious side is that the climate models I used, and those [other models] out there, are actually based on our fundamental understanding of science, of fluid mechanics, fluid motion, the science of convection in clouds, radiation from the sun, and the science of biology. And because of that, they're not just tuned for the modern earth, they can simulate any climate."
Climate models are used to predict what might happen to future temperatures as we pump out carbon dioxide via our factories, cars and power plants, leaving greenhouse gases in the atmosphere at what the UN climate science panel said in September were "unprecedented" levels. The Bristol team fed into that IPCC report with models that largely match previous climate records, a match that "give us confidence in the [projections for] future", says Lunt.
Lunt, who undertook the work in his spare time, admits to being a bit of a Lord of the Rings fan. "I read them a few times as a child," he says, before pausing. "And a few times as an adult, I must confess."
His attention to detail is certainly precious: there are even translations of his paper for Dwarvish and Elvish readers.