Thursday, September 02, 2010

TED Talk: Nic Marks on Happy Planet Index

I've been very neglectful of this blog of late - I've found it increasing difficult to juggle my various commitments and still have a bit of me time. I had considered closing the blog down, but I think I'll just post once in a blue moon instead - there's some good stuff in here if you work back through the archive.

Anyway, if you haven't seen this TED talk by Nic Marks of the New Economics Foundation - interesting stuff.

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Thursday, April 15, 2010

James Lovelock profile BBC4

If you didn't see the James Lovelock profile on BBC4 last night then I really recommend it (click here to see it on iPlayer - I don't think it's available outside the UK).

The man is a true genius - without his detection device, we would never have seen the issue of persistent pesticides or traced CFCs as the cause of the hole in the ozone layer. The realisation that life on Mars would change the planet's atmosphere, so you didn't actually have to go there to catch something living to prove/disprove its existence, led to his Gaia theory - probably the most misunderstood scientific theory in history as most conflate it with the tree-huggers who, erm, embraced it. Gaia was held up in this programme as being as important as the theory of evolution. Virtually all this work was done outside the mainstream academic system - a true maverick genius.

The real star was the 90 year old Lovelock himself who told his story with good humour. As another contributor put it, "Jim thinks outside the box so easily, because he doesn't see the box." Brilliant stuff all round.

Btw you can see my profile of Lovelock on Green Gurus here.

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Monday, April 05, 2010

A little birdhouse in my soul...

Normally I have a big project over the Easter weekend, but this year with a baby and an election, I have only really managed to repair and reposition our birdbox which had been battered by the weather (or a trespassing tree climber). I've never been that sure how much birdboxes help given the number of perfectly decent trees around, but we'll see if anyone takes up the offer.

I was devastated to hear that long tailed tits had a hard winter and their numbers are down - they're my all-time favourite bird and bring joy to my heart with their cheeky antics. So I was delighted when four flitted through the garden on Saturday. I like to think that our feeders gave them the edge over the crushing winter we had this year*.

So apart from that, I've redosed our lawn with organic food, but I haven't managed to get a full crop of compost for mulching having emptied all the heaps/containers last year. I may turn the "hedge heap" but I'm not expecting much quality compost there.

*btw not only was Jan the warmest globally on the satellite record, but Feb was second warmest on record. We just got someone else's weather.

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Wednesday, March 31, 2010

We've been recognised!

You post almost nothing for a couple of months and what happens? Someone goes and lists this blog as one of the top 50 sites to help you live a green life. Of course I'm pleased (read: over the moon), but I'm going to have to get back into the groove or people clicking through will be disappointed...


Monday, March 22, 2010

Sometimes I feel like such a dad...

... I seem to spend my whole life walking around switching lights off and grumbling!

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Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Politics and blogging

Dear readers,

Posts to Eco-living are going to become a little erratic over coming months as I'm standing for the Liberal Democrats in the UK's general election which is likely to be on May 6. If you want to follow my progress on that, I've just set up a Facebook campaign page which you are welcome to peruse or join as you see fit.

Obviously the environmental agenda is going to be at the top of my list.

All the best,



Sunday, February 14, 2010

Dr Seuss' Copenhagen

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Friday, February 12, 2010

Snow or no snow...

With every smart-alec comic and commentator making play that much of the UK and US eastern seaboard have been covered in snow since Copenhagen, there's a bit of a panic on in Vancouver before the Winter Olympics - you guessed it - no snow. Any jokes about that? Mention on the front page of the Express? Not even a little one? No?

I want to make all these characters write out 1000 times "I must not confuse weather with climate". That'd learn 'em.

UPDATE: Satellite readings show that last month was the warmest January on record (ie since records began in 1979).


Tuesday, February 02, 2010

Tiny CFLs

Compact fluorescent tubes are getting so, er, compact these days that we are finding it possible to replace the last few incandescents in the house, including these tiny ones in our cooker hood. Smart!


Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Permaculture-ish Experiment

Snow's gone, so I've finally got around to giving the allotment a bit of the permaculture/no dig treatment. The idea is to try to maximise natural processes and minimise the effort that goes in. A big part of this is not walking on the soil which compacts it and ruins its structure, so I dug a couple of paths to keep feet off the beds. Then I spread compost over the bed to add organic material which the worms should process down into the soil. The last thing I did was to spread some horticultural fabric on the soil to keep weeds down. I'm going to plant through the fabric on at least one of the beds.

Here's before:

And after:

I'm not 100% sure about this approach, I have to admit - at the minute it looks very artificial and not very wildlife friendly. And I may have dug the paths a bit deep, so they may need flags or gravel in case they get muddy. We shall see...

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Wednesday, January 20, 2010

So what about the Himalayan glaciers?

You've probably seen in the press that an error has been found buried in an IPCC text. It said the Himalayan glaciers would disappear by 2035 and it turns out that the statement has no scientific backing. The denial industry has gone into paroxysms of rage/joy, but the claim wasn't even featured in the document summary. The fact is that no-one knows for sure what is the state of these glaciers because they simply haven't been studied enough despite the fact that 2bn people rely on them for drinking water. Have a look at this short video and you'll see that we'd need to take a closer look because the limited information we have doesn't look good.

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Thursday, January 14, 2010


Have you seen the Yike Bike? - looks like a fantastic piece of engineering if you watch how it folds at the end of the ad. Until now, many of these kinds of vehicles (Segways etc) have been illegal on UK roads, but the Department for Transport is now consulting on their road use. About time, too - this sort of antiquated legislation is holding back the innovation we need to make eco-living practical, funky and fun.

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Saturday, January 09, 2010

A clear route from farm to fork...

Yesterday I had a lovely, warming lunch in Blackfriars cafe in Newcastle. Even better were the placemats which showed you where they get all their produce from in the region. Nice one.

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Thursday, January 07, 2010

Don't forget the birds...

If you're in this strange snow-bound world that we call the UK, don't forget our little feathered friends. Fresh water, fatty foods, seeds etc etc will all help them through. Don't bother with bread and you're better losing the plastic nets that peanuts and fatballs come in - they can damage birds' feet.

The snow seems to have brought a few new visitors to our garden. We had a woodpecker at the nuts yesterday and as I type there are three redwings up in a tree, eating snow. I've never seen either in the garden in the ten years we've lived here.

One thing I have noticed about the snow is a resurgence in walking. People are wrapping up and trudging their way around the city - maybe the habits will stick for a while.

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Sunday, January 03, 2010

Oh for a 4X4!

Happy New Year Everyone! Hope you all had a fantastic break.

Mine was great, but fell down on the green front. Santa went a bit overboard for the older boy. And me. Less so for the old girl - my tightness saves on a lot of resources. Actually she got a merino wool walking top - very sustainable indeed.

Foodwise, we couldn't get our usual organic turkey and the free range we did get came in at a whopping 2kg more than we expected, so the meat once a day pledge went out the window in favour of not wasting something that died for us.

Then there was our New Year break, in Belford, Northumberland. Our house was lovely, but solid stone walls and poor insulation (our roof snow went first everyday), and some idiot left a window open while the it was empty for 5 days in sub-zero temperatures... it took about 24hours of full on heating to get the place to a temperature which meant we could change the little one without putting the prospect of grandkids at serious risk.

It snowed and it snowed and it snowed. In the old, sprogless days, this would have been a great opportunity for tramps across the snowy landscapes, but with little ones it usually meant hours of Thomas the Tank Engine. It also meant we had to dig the car out and skite across ice to the A1 to get home. For only the second time in my life, I wished I had a 4X4 - the local farmers were having no problems. Still, we ate well, the NY fireworks were just outside our window, I got to catch up on some reading and the scenery was fantastic.

By the way, lots of people will be thinking, how come all this snow with global warming? North-easterly winds is the answer - we're just getting someone else's weather for a while. Siberia's to be precise.

It is holding up the start of my permaculture experiment - part of my 10:10 commitment - the agricultural mulch rolls have been bought, but the spade is staying put for the time being.

I hope 2010 brings you harmony, health and happiness!

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Thursday, December 24, 2009

Have a very Merry and Green Christmas!

And all the best for the New Year.

Don't forget that, if you're struggling to make a New Year's resolution, making a 10:10 commitment would be a good place to start.

Take care - there will be plenty more in 2010,



Thursday, December 17, 2009

Monbiot vs Plimer

I know I've been a bit obsessed about the denial movement of late, but you really must watch George Monbiot take apart the darling of the denial circuit, Ian Plimer, and his dodgy science. Enjoy!

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Tuesday, December 15, 2009

The Age of Stupid

I finally watched Franny Armstrong's Age of Stupid last night on BBC4. The film is effectively a series of modern day mini-documentaries of people with different attitudes to climate change around the world, but framed as archive pieces being assembled by Pete Postelthwaite in an armoured repository in post-apocalyptic 2055. There are also some animated sequences, but these were undoubted the weakest part of the film as they tended to slip into a standard activist polemic-by-numbers, whereas the real life elements really got across the complexities, self delusions and frustrations in the response to climate change.

There was the small scale wind farm developer, losing a planning application in the face of NIMBYs. The head NIMBY, a middle aged woman who had apparently managed to stop a farm "on her Scottish estate" said to the camera "of course I'm worried about climate change, of course we must expand renewable energy", leaving the "but not in my back yard" unspoken.

There was the Indian entrepreneur who was on a mission to bring air travel to the poor through a low cost airline, the Iraqi kids scratching a living in Jordan whose father had been killed by the Americans, the American who saved hundreds in the aftermath of Katrina but who used to work in the oil industry, the elderly French alpine guide who was campaigning against a second Mont Blanc tunnel.

But the story that really struck home for me was the Nigerian woman trying to get into medical school while living in the shadow of a Shell Oil refinery. A standard line from the sceptic/denial camp is that acting to stop climate change will divert funds away from poverty reduction and lock the poor into a doom loop. What utter nonsense. Shell flares enough gas in Nigeria to be equivalent to about 10% of the UK's carbon emissions. They could sell it cheaply to Nigerians for cooking, vehicles etc, but no they just burn it off. Nigeria, with all its natural wealth, is stuck in a rut of corruption, poverty and pollution. So the $6m question is, what has the high carbon economy ever done for the poor?

As I said before, the animations didn't add much and the Postlethwaite bits could be a bit mawkish, but the heart of this film is a powerful story of how we can be so stupid - and I use that word in as nice a way as I can as few people featured were being particularly greedy. It is both a warning and an insight into the trajectory we are locked into by the dint of what is between our ears.

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Sunday, December 13, 2009

You can't kill a zombie

Ben Goldacre writes the regular Bad Science column in the Guardian. Normally he sticks to medical issues, particularly the MMR scare, but he turned his scathing eye to climate change denial this week and gave us a new phrase - "zombie arguments". These are the arguments that keep coming back no matter how many times you blow it to smithereens - global cooling in the 70s, mediaeval warm period, no warming since 1998 and all the usual suspects. You can try using the well rehearsed responses listed at Grist, New Scientist or try the heavy artillery of scientific argument at Real Climate, but you won't kill zombies with mere facts - they keep coming back.

BTW, I had lunch on Saturday with a leading climatologist. He's very relieved that none of his e-mails to Phil Jones at CRU have been through the denialists' distortion mill and says that Phil Jones is a true gent and completely above reproach. The New Scientist debunking of the e-mail allegations is worth a read - there really is nothing in it.

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Tuesday, December 08, 2009

Cooking up a storm...

A strange cooking urge comes over me when I have a young baby in the house. I don't know whether it is some kind of hunter-gatherer-protect-the-young-instinct, or just the fact when I cook, I want to cook, not just heat stuff up. It's a paradoxical thing - I'm meant to have no time at all (baby, toddler, 1.6 jobs), but I'm spending about an hour almost every evening cooking (one evening a week is usually a junk food binge). Sometimes, like tonight, it gets me in trouble if people are hungry...

So what's this got to do with sustainability? Food makes up a huge chunk of our carbon footprint - and then you add in all the other environmental issues - nitrogen run-off into rivers and lakes, pesticide use, land use, biodiversity loss, soil erosion.

If you cook from fresh, you can choose where each ingredient comes from and, to an extent, how it was produced - I try to get as much as possible from our allotment (not a lot!) and from Northumberland and rural Durham - our city's agricultural hinterland - and organic where possible. You can also avoid all the gunk that processed foods use to bulk out food and try to make it moreish. There's more I'd like to do - get more from the allotment and do a bit more foraging - although my attempt at using dandelion leaves instead of rocket this summer didn't quite work out. I must dig out my copy of food for free.

We can go a little deeper as well. Like many people I believe we need to reconnect to the natural systems we rely on - and our food choice is probably the closest conscious interaction we have with that world. So cooking properly with good ingredients is my little way of connecting, living life properly and giving two fingers to the myth that we're all too busy.


Friday, December 04, 2009

20% off The Three Secrets of Green Business...

OT: My first book, The Three Secrets of Green Business will be published by Earthscan later this month. For more details see here.

I'm very excited and it is Christmas, so I'm offering a 20% discount and some free goodies to subscribers to my monthly bulletin, The Low Carbon Agenda - you've got until 15th December to sign up as the offer will go out on the 16th.


Thursday, December 03, 2009

When Physics & Politics Collide

If he wins the next UK General Election, Conservative leader David Cameron is going to have a problem. His first act to decontaminate the Tory brand was to fly to a melting glacier and hug a husky. Vote blue, go green was the slogan. But a recent survey found that the top ten Tory or Tory-leaning bloggers are all proudly in the climate change denial camp. If Dave is going to match his talk with action if and when he wins, will he be able to bring his party with him?

Going further to the right, the small party UKIP are renowned deniers and at the extreme end of the scale, the racist BNP are also deniers. In the US and Australia the situation is similar - as you move from centre to the right, climate change denial goes from rare to the gospel. And what do these people tell you? That climate change is a socialist hoax to enslave the individual in a communist new world order. Those of us who "spread alarm" about climate change are 'watermelons' - green on the outside and red in the middle. This is clearly preposterous - are (almost) all the climatologists and world leaders involved in some humungous socialist conspiracy? In any case communism has been just as polluting as capitalism.

Going leftwards, there is a tendency for Marxists to deny - the Great Global Warming Scandal declared that Margaret Thatcher had created the whole thing to smash the mining unions (crikey...). But you have to go much further from the centre before you hit such crazy conspiracy theories.

I find all of this bizarre. Climate change is about physics, not politics. You have to look at the evidence and decide whether or not you accept it. Your political orientation shouldn't come into it. Politics is about people, not physics.

So why does it happen? Previous environmental crises have been regional in source or impact - acid rain from the UK would damage European forests - or involved certain chemicals (eg DDT, CFCs) which could easily be substituted or phased out. What climate change does for the first time is fundamentally challenge the status quo. Our economy is built on cheap fossil energy and that is rebounding on us in a big way. The solutions are political and difficult and will be very hard for a free marketeer with their abundance mentality to accept.

It is much easier to deny the science than accept the reality. But in my book the laws of physics will always defeat political argument every time.

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Wednesday, December 02, 2009

Lord Lawson "fiddles climate data"

Nigel Lawson is another non-climatologist who believes he is qualified to review the evidence on climate change. He has recently been in the press harrumphing over the CRU e-mail hack revelations.

Shame he has been found out fiddling the 21st century climate data on the logo of his new objective climate change think tank to show a cooling trend.

This is the latest in a long line of faked data from the sceptic/denier camp - eg Pat Michaels misrepresenting James Hansen's predictions to Congress and Christopher Monckton's fictional IPCC prediction. [update - we should add Booker, Plimmer, and Durkin to this list]

Should we have an independent review? Or just laugh?

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Tuesday, December 01, 2009

Birdlife: my favs

The last couple of years we've been getting a small flock of long tailed tits (above) in the garden. I love them - they're cute, cheeky and agile and they look like they've got a real gang-of-mates thing going on. But this year they've been usurped in my affections by a pair of nuthatches (below). They're cute too, with added colour and their habit of running straight down tree trunks towards the feeders is just delightful.

The Observer ran an article a couple of weeks ago about the growing popularity of birdwatching. I'm not surprised - watching the activity around the feeders is a lovely, innocent pleasure that makes my heart sing. A reminder that eco-living can be local as well as global.

Images are from Wikipedia and used under Creative Commons licence.


Friday, November 27, 2009

Monckton/Gore Rap It Out

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Thursday, November 26, 2009

Climatologists are human shock!

You've probably heard the furore over the leaked e-mails from the Climate Research Unit (CRU) at the University of East Anglia. If you are a climate denier/sceptic then this is the proof you've been waiting for that the whole thing is a socialist scam to enslave the world. Even George Monbiot says that heads should roll. Rejoice!


When you look at it, it's all a big fuss over nothing. Let's look at the "smoking guns":

1. One researcher says he's used a "trick" to deal with the "decline". This has already been misinterpreted by The Telegraph that the "decline" refers to recent years' temperature data when it doesn't. It refers to a way round a problem marrying historic tree ring data and actual temperature data. The whole "trick" was so devious the researcher published what he did and how he did it at the time in the prestigious scientific journal Nature and it was accepted as scientifically sound by their (very strict) peer review panel.

2. The censorship of research. This refers to the controversy in 2004 over the editorial policy in the journal Climate Research and again the row was very public at the time. Several editors resigned in protest at the acceptance of a number of (sceptical) papers which they felt did not meet proper academic standards. Academic politics can get quite bitter.

3. Freedom of Information requests. Again this has all been in the open, although I believe that in general data should be shared, even with people who will misinterpret it, deliberately or otherwise.

4. One researcher is frustrated he can't explain why 2008 was relatively cool. If you've worked in academic circles, there are always problems like this to solve.

What else do the e-mails tell us? That climatologists can be truculent, defensive and sometimes rude about others in private. Well, just like the rest of us then...

The whole fuss has got the denial brigade back in the media just before Copenhagen. You'd think someone had planned the whole thing.

Also, Nigel Lawson has launched a new "cross-party policy forum" on global warming which is going to carry out an objective review of the evidence. Except the board of trustees and scientific advisors are packed with the usual suspects from the denial circuit (Lindzen, Stott, Plimer - the best that money can buy). The banner of the website shows temperature data from 2001-08, nailing their colours firmly to the mast. Looks like the Heartland Institute on Thames, then.

Ho hum.

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Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Coming clean: my 10:10 commitment

I've been mulling for a while on what to do for my 10:10 commitment. According to the Carbon Detox method of counting, my carbon footprint is about 18% below average*, so I've done the quick wins and much of the more difficult stuff.

So, I've decided to:

1. Cut my meat intake to a maximum of once per day when I've got a choice.

2. Make a much bigger effort on the allotment this year so I'm both producing more food and providing a carbon sink in the soil by using permaculture and no-dig methods to build up humus (more on this as I get stuck in).

3. Putting another 4 inches of sheep's wool insulation in the loft and growing some climbers up the north wall of our house - the latter will provide insulation and a habitat for wee beasties.

* Actually, the method would now give me an even lower footprint since Jimmy was born as things like heating and car use would get shared between four rather than three, but that seems a bit of a cheat!

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Monday, November 23, 2009

FoE Climate Change viral


Saturday, November 21, 2009

Book Review: The Transition Handbook, Rob Hopkins

Rob Hopkins founded the Transition Movement whose aim is to build resilience to the twin threats of peak oil and climate change in communities through a return to localisation of services. The model has been applied most prominently in Kinsale in Ireland, Totnes in Devon and Lewes in Sussex and is now springing up all over the UK and indeed the world. This book is essentially both a manifesto for the concept and a 'how to guide' for its implementation.

He starts by making a persuasive argument that peak oil and climate change cannot be addressed in isolation - otherwise a solution to one could worsen the other. The second section of the book is about presenting a positive vision of a resilient future and the third is on how to get there. Hopkins' background is in permaculture and it is no surprise that many of the examples in the book are of the local food, 'rustic' skills and vernacular building. The transition movement has also experimented with using local currencies to strengthen local economies.

The first thing to say is that, as a book, The Transition Handbook is superb. Hopkins practises everything he preaches - a positive vision and a no blame culture - and his prose is clear, personal and anecdotal without ever being cheesy. The participation techniques he outlines are clear and effective - I pinched one (storytelling the positive vision) for a corporate workshop I was running last month and it worked a treat. The only things I felt were a bit underdeveloped were some more examples outside permaculture and local currencies - for example, I'm sure the Transition Movement could help persuade people to walk and cycle rather than driving, or roll out an extra layer of insulation in their loft. While teaching self-build skills is admirable, it will have little effect on carbon emissions in the short-medium term where action is required. This is a minor niggle - as I said the book is superb and I will be using it and its engagement and practical techniques more and more as time goes on.

On the Transition Movement itself, the argument for moving in this direction is compelling. The big challenge is whether they can extend their appeal beyond the people (including me!) who naturally flock to this kind of thing. It is no surprise that the Transition concept started in the UK in Totnes and Lewes - places with a long history of alternative living and thinking. Transition Brixton will be a key test of whether the man in the Pringle sweater, the woman in the M&S dress and the teenagers in the Kappa tracksuit will join the people in 'ethnic trousers' who have flocked to the movement. Again this is no criticism of the Transition Movement itself, more a reflection on the challenges ahead.

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Sunday, November 15, 2009

Can we flunk it? Yes we can!

No, not Obama this time, but Bob the Builder. I took my 2.75 yr old to the live show in Newcastle on Saturday (not my idea, honest, no really). The show was pretty well put on (although the young Muck fans behind me were to be disappointed), but it featured such a heavy-handed green theme it made me cringe. Bob and his team were set the task of building an eco-centre, featuring wind turbines, recycling facilities and the slogan "it's only rubbish if you can't recycle it!" repeated ad-nauseum. Pity they couldn't have provided any recycling bins in the auditorium - and don't get me started on the decidedly unrecyclable tat they were selling in bucket loads to the pre-schoolers as merchandise. Just a little more thought would have made it appear a lot less cynical. The Millennium Dome got slaughtered for this kind of not practising what they preach gaffe, you'd think people would learn...

Today (Sunday) we went for a greener trip - the Wildfowl and Wetland Trust at Washington. Unfortunately we got off to a bad start getting lost due to a road closure and some terrible signposting and, with the moans of hungry people in the car ringing in my ears, we ended up pulling into a garden centre with a coffee shop. We opened the door to my personal room 101 - a seemingly infinite array of gaudy Christmas tat extending as far as the eye could see, with Do They Know It's Christmas blaring over the top - Nooooooooooooooooaaaaaah!!!! Make it stooooop!

Anyway we got to the WWT with time to go around the inner walk - little Jimmy getting breast fed as we went (it really is a very mild autumn, denialists, isn't it?). Great place with loads of interesting birds and hides and some good interpretation panels (I'm a sucker for a good fact). Best one this time - 40% of all species which live on dead wood are under threat of extinction. This made me a bit smug as all the round wood that we can't burn at home I lay between the base of one of our hedges and an old stone retaining wall as a wilderness pile. I originally thought of this to provide somewhere for beasties to hibernate, but I didn't realise I was providing a habitat too. A great day out - despite Harry falling out with a goose - and a lot cheaper than BtB - we will definitely be back for a full day visit.

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