17 July 2010

An Elephant Seal

There are many advantages to living in a small coastal hamlet like Schoenmakerskop near Port Elizabeth. The one is that people know me as a nature photographer and phone me if they see something interesting. Yesterday I got a call saying there is an Elephant Seal in the third bay past the monument on Sacramento Trail. I had my doubts because they are rare vagrants from the sub-Antarctic seas and expected it to be the common Cape Fur Seal.

A brisk walk and in about the 10th bay after the monument I found her (people and directions!), a beautiful young Elephant Seal about 3 meters long. She was lying on the rocks and was beautifully camouflaged. I took a few pictures and chased a few dog owners and their dogs away when Greg Hofmeyer, the marine mammologist from the local museum arrived. He had walked right past her - the fur blends in really well with the rocks. Who says there are no advantages in being a colour deficient photographer?

We sat there for about 3 hours watching the seal who, to be quite honest, was not doing much. If they come out of the water here it is normally because they are moulting and it was obvious she was. Apparently they cannot maintain their body temperature when in this state. The seal rolled a few times, yawned a lot, scratched with her flippers and borped at us once or twice (I don’t know how to describe the sound – borp works better than bark). It was great having Greg around, seals are his study speciality and I was able to learn much from him. When we moved behind the seal to try and sex the animal the seal rose up looking at us over her back – an interesting position. Greg related the story of a French researcher who approached a large male from behind, and was actually bitten on the head by the animal arching backwards over its back. The animal’s eyes seemed particularly large but given that it dives deep for its food which consists predominantly of fish and squid it is not surprising. The mouth is cavernous and again this has to do with the diet. The tongue is pink and the teeth are large and I am sure capable of causing much damage. We couldn’t get very close and were not able to determine its gender but guess it is female.

Sadly the seal did not stay long and it was probably the stream of walkers and their dogs passing the animal that made it leave. I am working on a protocol as to what should happen when an animal like a seal comes to shore. We have tried putting up signs asking people to stay away but this has the opposite effect. Dog owners claim that their little pooches would never harm a seal but the barking is not conducive to a restful recuperation on a beach. This time we kept the news of the seal off the newspapers and websites but I suppose human (and their pets) pressure is just too much for these beautiful animals.

16 July 2010

Rodeo: Should some events be banned?

With two days still to go, six horses have already been killed at the Calgary Stampede. The highest number of deaths has been immediately following the Chuckwagon Races. Rodeo animals meet sudden death at the Stampede every year, which since 1912 has been one of Canada’s top sporting attractions.

This year, the animal welfare lobby is better organized and has received support from some groups in the UK. The League Against Cruel Sports, which helped ban fox hunting in the UK in 2004, has persuaded more than 50 members of Britain’s Parliament to sign a motion condemning rodeo and calling on the Canadian government to take steps to stop the “immense cruelty” of events like the Calgary Stampede. Rodeo has been banned in Britain since 1934.

Although some would like to see rodeo banned altogether, it is calf roping and steer wrestling that come in for the most criticism. In both events, the animal’s neck is twisted and wrenched in unnatural ways, with cowboys competing against the clock. These events are now banned at the Cloverdale Rodeo in British Columbia, another of Canada’s top rodeos. But in Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba, the prairie provinces, they are still very much alive. At the Raymond Stampede in Alberta, Canada’s oldest rodeo, steer wrestling (photograph above) and calf roping are two of the main events.

Rodeo authorities are not insensitive to animal welfare concerns and insist that safety is paramount for participants, including the animals, and spectators. And nobody loves and understands horses and cattle more than ranchers and farmers who supply many of the rodeo cowboys, cowgirls and animals. But the rural-urban divide is growing and the closest many city-folk have been to an animal is their pet cat, dog or budgerigar. Animal welfare groups will therefore have an increasingly important role to play as these issues receive national and international attention.

In North America, issues over rodeo go far beyond animal welfare and the urban-rural divide. The cultural heritage of the West is involved.

5 July 2010

Reservoirs - before and after

NW England has been warned that if substantial rain does not fall over the Lake District in the next week or so, much of the will be subject to hosepipe bans.  It seems odd that Cumbria, a county that was devastated by some of the worst floods in memory, should now be suffering from drought. Vey little rain has fallen over the last three months and temperatures have soared to the high 20s increasing demand.

Stuart Baines was about and about in the Lake District last autumn and now he has returned to supply a set of images showing the extreme low water levels that now exist. The pair of images below show Thirlmere in Autumn 2009 and from the same viewpoint in July 2010.

Thirlmere is  the main reservoir for Manchester and its looking very empty! Sadly the geography of the area means that the water runs off the land into lakes and rivers and flows quickly into the ocean rather than seeping down through the rocks to replenish the aquifers.