English Pastoral – An Inheritance by James Rebanks

If you are interested in the future of our upland landscapes – then this is a really important book. It is the second book written by James Rebanks and follows on from his extremely successful and popular first work – The Shepherd’s Life (2015) which detailed the tradition and culture involved with being a Lake District sheep farmer. In all my talks and lectures on hill-farming on Dartmoor I use this Rebanks’ quote as it seems to capture the essence of how hill-farmers across the country view themselves.

Our farming way of life has roots deeper than five thousand years into the soil of this landscape. Taking my sheep down those lanes is what people have done here since the land was first settled. That is what these lanes are for, to let the little farmsteads access the mountain grazing. I am walking in the footsteps of my ancestors, and living a life they lived.

In his second book he describes his journey as he attempts to de-intensify his farming practices to bring wildlife back to his farm. The last 40 years or so has seen an era of conflict between hill-farmers and conservationists, the latter essentially blaming the former for unsustainable grazing regimes which have seen upland habitats and wildlife plummet in their abundance, quality and value. Hill-farmers, in their defence, argue that all they have done is follow government agricultural and environmental policy in an attempt to approach financial viability and produce food for the nation.

This is a timely book, farming and hill-farming in particular, are at a crossroads, we are about to leave the European Union, new trade deals have yet to be agreed, the Basic Payment Scheme which has subsidised farming in recent years is being phased out and a new and as yet unspecified Environmental Land Management Scheme (ELMS) is to be introduced to support farming in return for environmental improvements. It is a time of change and great jeopardy for hill-farming, but nevertheless there are opportunities and glimmers of hope for those who can read the runes.

The book is divided into three long but sub-divided chapters and it is beautifully written. The first chapter, Nostalgia, looks back to when Rebanks was a young boy and fell in love with hill-farming under the tutelage of his grandfather – a man deeply rooted in traditional hill-farming practices, at the point in time when new more intensive farming practices were becoming widestread, practices which Grandfather Rebanks rejected.

By the end of that year, though, I had fallen in love with that old farming world. My grandfather had achieved what he had set out to do: I was no longer a boy hiding from the farm; I was a true believer.

The second chapter, Progress, details his farming life as an adult, working for much of it with his father in an era when hill-farming was changing from the traditional to the modern. This period sees, for example, the introduction and widespread use of inorganic fertilisers, the switch from cutting hay to silage and the use of pesticides along with major changes to the farmland landscapes and their associated wild animals and plants. There are some interesting insights into how farming practices changed and how this impacted on the curlews that formerly bred in the small fields.

Throughout this chapter it is clear that both Rebanks and his father were unhappy about the impacts that their more intensive farming  practices were having on the land and its wildlife. There is a revelatory section where an old but traditional farmer Henry dies and his land is split up and sold to others, the soils in his fields are tested for nutrient levels and general soil health and it transpired his soils were amongst the healthiest in the district. His traditional methods of mixed farming and field rotations along with the use of animal manures had protected and enhanced his soils without the need for artificial fertilisers and lime.

My father found this news a revelation. It shook him, because it said something about what the new farming was doing to the land. The most traditional farmer in the district had the healthiest soil……. My father knew the truth lay in Henry’s soil.

Rebanks discusses how the quest for ever cheaper food has degraded the environment and made farmers price takers, whilst at the same time had distanced consumers from the process of food production and how land was being managed.

This was business-school thinking applied to the land, with issues of ethics and nature shunted off to the margins of consciousness. There was no room for sentiment, culture or tradition, no understanding of natural constraints or costs. The modern farming mindset didn’t recognise these external things as relevant. This was farming reduced to a financial and engineering challenge, rather than being understood as a biological activity.

And so, his quest begins to try and transform his farming practices to benefit nature whilst still producing high quality local food.

The science of what has happened is chilling, and the fact that the loss of nature is escalating is evening more terrifying. ….. As farmers we now have to reconcile the need to produce more food than any other generation in history with the necessity to do that sustainably and in ways that allow nature to survive alongside us. We need to bring the two clashing ideologies about farming together to make it as sustainable and biodiverse as it can be.

The third chapter, Utopia, sets out how Rebanks is attempting to reconcile these two clashing ideologies, by fencing off river and stream banks, ‘re-wiggling’ water courses, ceasing to use inorganic fertilisers, substantially reducing pesticide use, planting trees, re-instating hedges and by re-introducing Belted Galloway cattle to his landscapes. These are impressive changes and achievements and perhaps unsurprisingly are accompanied by a flourishing of wildlife and soil health on his farm.

Rebanks suggests that his farming friends ‘crudely’ divide into three categories: a third have begun to change their farming and are ‘committed to trying to be good ecological stewards’, another third are ‘open to change but have limited room for manoeuvre as they are in the financial realities of trying to run a profitable business’, and the final third are ‘deeply sceptical – or still true believers in the intensive post-war model of farming’.

James Rebanks is a significant figure, he is this country’s most famous hill-farmer, this book clearly shows that he is in the ‘public money for public goods’ camp and that nature can be successfully blended into the cultural landscapes narrative of a World Heritage Site.

This is a must-read book for everyone interested in our upland landscapes: conservationists, ecologists, policy makers AND hill-farmers. Dartmoor’s recent history is similar to that of the Lake District in some respects but different in others: the in-bye land has seen agricultural improvement and intensification but significant areas of its common land is now substantially under-grazed. I have consistently suggested to Dartmoor’s hill-farmers that they need to ‘follow the money’ as the new ELMS emerge, English Pastoral sets out one way to achieve that.

Moth traps …… what are the options?

During this pandemic I’ve been running my moth traps in my garden to keep myself occupied and have been posting pictures of what I have caught on a daily basis on my Twitter feed and my Facebook wall. As a result I have had a number of people contact me to ask about where they can get a moth trap from. I thought it might be helpful if I wrote a piece about some of the considerations to take into account when buying or making a moth trap. These are simply my views which I have come to after moth trapping on an off for about 30 years, others may see it differently and may wish to comment accordingly.

Moth traps come in different shapes and sizes, use different types of bulb and can be powered in various ways. To the beginner this can appear confusing. I will set out my views here, to help you through the labyrinth.

Power supply
At their simplest moth traps consist of a container to catch the moths in and a bulb to attract them. (Just to be clear, the moth traps I describe here do not kill the moths, once caught you identify them and then let them go). In order to light the bulb you require a power supply, the options are the mains, a battery or a generator. Moth traps designed to use the latter two are more (and much more) expensive as you require a battery or a generator and have been designed for use in the open countryside where you will not have access to mains power. So …. If you intend to run a moth trap in your garden then a main powered moth trap utilising an extension cable is, in my view, the obvious choice for the beginner. If, in due course, you want to moth trap in remote locations you might then consider getting a battery powered trap or a generator.

For decades the default bulb used by moth trappers was a 125w (or 160w) Mercury Vapour (MV) bulb which run off 220v mains. These default bulbs also require what is known as a choke (or ballast) which in simple terms is a little box of electrical components which stop the bulb from immediately blowing when you switch it on. However in recent years the manufacture of MV bulbs has ceased due to concerns of mercury pollution should the bulb shatter. And here is the dilemma … MV bulbs catch, in my experience, a greater number and diversity of moths than the ‘replacement’ options I will discuss later. It is still possible to acquire MV bulbs from certain retailers but at some point in the future, supplies will run out. As a result moth trappers who use MV bulbs tend to carry a stock of bulbs for use in to the future. Each bulb costs around £20 and some suppliers limit the number of bulbs you can buy to eek out the stock. When buying spare MV bulbs it is also important to buy the right fitting – some are screw in, some 2-pin and some 3-pin bayonet types.

MV bulbs are also very bright (never stare at them or they will damage your sight). So if you live in a urban area an MV light may annoy your neighbours and attract complaints.

I also have a couple of Philips 160w ML ‘blended bulbs’ which can be runoff the mains without the need of a choke. From the internet, it would appear that such bulbs are still available and are an option worth considering if you wish to make your own trap and sort out wiring up the bulb. Again these bulbs are very bright.

MV bulbs and blended bulbs run very hot and as a result they will shatter if it starts to rain, so they are protected by rain guards or a commercial empty Branston pickle jar (see later in the traps section). However, if treated with care these bulbs will last many years of use.

Another variant to consider especially in urban areas is the use of a ‘black bulb’ (see here) – these again run off the mains but are only 25w and because their design produce considerable less light which is visible to humans but they do allow ultraviolet and infra-red light to be emitted so are good at attracting moths. Again, such bulbs can be purchased and a trap and electrics assembled around it.

The next type of bulb to consider is an actinic bulb, these bulbs do not have the mercury issues. They were originally used in moth trapping at remote sites where they were powered of 12v batteries. However now by using a ‘plug-in converter’ they can also be run off the mains. Some of these bulbs are 20w and some 30w, some suppliers sell traps with two 20w or 30w bulbs.

Finally, ‘bulbs’ have been developed for moth trapping which are LED lights. These run off batteries, they are compact systems which are a good travel option in remote areas but their performance when compared to an MV light is considerably reduced.

In essence there are three main types of moth trap used by amateur naturalists, all named after the lepidopterists who invented them.

In no particular order, firstly there is the Skinner Trap which is basically a rectangular box with angled perspex lids which allow the moths to enter into the trap (which is filled with some egg trays where trapped moths can rest out of the light). My first trap was an aluminium Skinner trap but most today appear to be plastic or wood.

This is a flat packed aluminium Skinner Trap with a choke (rectangular box), an extension cable and the MV bulb stored inside a pickle jar – jar put over the bulb when lit to stop rain hitting and shattering it.

Skinner trap assembled – with the two persplex lids

Second is the Robinson Trap – a circular trap which works in a similar way. This is bulky trap which unlike the Skinner trap cannot be flat packed. It is my trap of choice in my garden.

MV Robinson Trap with choke

Finally is the Heath Trap which also flat packs and we designed to be easily transported to remote locations.

Portable Heath Trap (can be flat-packed) with its Lithium Tracer 22aH battery

There are variants on these three types, for example there are those who have designed their own traps either using wood or circular or square plastic storage containers. Google ‘moth traps’ or look at this booklet.

Battery operated moth traps were designed to use in remote locations and on holiday. In the early days I used car or motorbike batteries, which take quite a bit of lugging about. These have been replaced by lithium batteries which come in various sizes depending on the output of the bulb type and bulb set-up in use. The batteries also need to be charged from the mains after each outing. These batteries are also expansive, costing more than a trap set-up in many cases. My batteries are Tracer batteries, an 8aH to power my twin LED Skinner Trap and a 22aH to power my actinic Heath Trap.

Portable compact LED Skinner Trap with is Lithium Tracer 8aH battery

So, what to do?
As you can see there are various options! If you want to run a trap in your garden then I suggest you get a mains powered trap running an actinic light source and the moth cost effect trap with a Skinner type trap.

There are many suppliers of moth traps, I have bought all my recent traps from Anglian Lepidopterist Supplies – here is the link to their range of mains driven traps, either the compact Skinner or the double compact Skinner would be my recommendation.

There are other suppliers I have used such as Watkins and Doncaster – see here or the NHBS – see here.

If these traps are outside your budget or you are not sure whether you will use the trap very much perhaps got for a black bulb (here) and make your own.

Sugaring and wine roping
Not all moths are attracted to light (and indeed there are many species of day-flying moth). Sugaring and wine roping are ways to attracting the night flying moths which do not come to light. This link gives you a couple of recipes which you can try out. Moths fly most when the night time temperature in above 14 degrees and it is not a full moon.

Final considerations
In the UK there are over 2500 species of moth of which approaching 900 are ‘macro-moths’. This is the best field guide for identifying them.

Then there are 1600 species of ‘micro-moths’ – smaller and trickier to ID, however some micro-moths are bigger than some of the macro-moths ….. Many are featured in this guide.

This book contains photos of all 2500 species.

The only other thing you will be (aside from patience) are some pots to put you catch in, in advance of identifying them. The three suppliers listed above sell such items.

I hope this has been helpful ….. have fun.








Celebrating VE Day in a pandemic

On the 75th anniversary of VE Day, I am reflective of the sacrifices that were made and I want to celebrate the end of hostilities and the commencement of the post-war era of peace in Europe.

I am thinking of my late parents (who had yet to meet) and what they were doing on VE Day. My father spent the war in Belfast, during the day he worked for the General Post Office, maintaining the telephone system and by night he was a fire watcher in case the ship yards were bombed. My mother worked on the family farm in Hartland, North Devon before moving to Exeter to train as a nurse.

Mum and Dad on their wedding day

I’m also thinking of my late wife Cesca’s parents. Her father is British and her mother is German. Her stepfather was also German and was severely injured in Stalingrad, was evacuated to Eastern Germany where he had to hide underground as the Red Army advanced on Berlin, he then escaped to West Germany where he trained as a Doctor and ended his career as a District Surgeon in Kenya. Our lives consist of complicated and tangled webs.

Gunter and Renate (Cesca’s stepdad and mum), my mum, me, Josh, Cesca and Michael (Cesca’s dad)

My mother, who died 7 years ago would have looked forward to this celebration of VE day, she would be looking forward to seeing the Queen, her children, grandchildren and great grandchildren; she would be waiting expectantly to see what the Queen was wearing. My father, who died 12 years ago would have be less keen on those aspects of the day but would nevertheless have humoured mum. Afterwards, I think he would have dug out his treasured copy of Churchill’s World War 2 volume on VE Day ‘Triumph and Tragedy’ where he would have read Winston’s words – clearly and unambiguously managing the population’s expectations..


His treasured Churchill books

“I wish I could tell you tonight that all our toils and troubles were over. …… But, on the contrary, I must warn you, as I did when I began this five years’ task  ….. that there is still a lot to do, and that you must be prepared for further efforts of mind and body ….. You must not weaken in any way in your alert and vigilant frame of mind.”

And so, to the celebrations, I have decided to bake a cake, and not any cake, Churchill’s favourite fruit cake! The National Trust, who now look after Chartwell, Churchill’s home, are of course also renowned for their cakes and have published the recipe which Mrs Landemare, Churchill’s wartime cook, used to bake for him.


It is not just cooking the cake that matters, presentation is also important, especially as it is a National Trust cake! This takes me back to a glorious and happy day a couple of years before my mum died. We took her to London where in the morning we visited Buckingham Palace and in the afternoon we took tea at the Savoy. Mum really enjoyed the day and whilst we were at Buckingham Palace she bought a Queen Victoria cake stand which I now have.

Queen Victoria’s Cake Stand

Me and mum in the gardens of Buckingham Palace

But of course, these VE Day celebrations have not gone to plan, a virus has cancelled our street parties and forbidden us to go to the pub. There is no shortage of irony in the fact that our 75th anniversary of Victory in Europe  coincides with a global pandemic. The end of World War 2 redefined the remainder of the 20th century and SARS-CoV-2 will redefine our lives for at least the next decade. We have yet to ‘wrestle the invisible mugger to the ground’, we are not approaching VCovid Day, if we are lucky we might be close to Tobruk. Churchill however can help us again, by clearly setting out where we find ourselves and again managing our expectations. In November 1942, after the Desert Campaign he, of course, said this.

“This is not the end, it is not even the beginning of the end, but it is perhaps the end of the beginning.”

Right, I’m off to share Churchill’s favourite fruit cake with Josh and Hollie!

Churchill’s favourite fruit cake on the Queen Victoria Cake Stand


A journey towards transparency?

We have known for a while now that the reported daily ‘hospital deaths’ figure was not a true representation of total deaths for the country. Now that the Office for National Statistics and their Scottish and Northern Irish equivalents are publishing the total death statistics, albeit with an 11 day lag, we are beginning to get a clearer picture of what is unfolding in the UK as a result of the Covid-19 outbreak. It is also very good that data was presented at yesterday’s daily briefing regarding Covid-19 deaths outside of hospitals (care homes, hospices, home and other). However, we are still not being told the whole story yet. I will try and explain why.

Following the daily briefing the Government publishes the charts presented along with a spreadsheet containing the data which makes up the charts. Yesterday two new charts were shown: ‘All weekly registered deaths from COVID-19 compared with deaths in hospital (UK)’ and ‘Provisional weekly registered deaths from COVID-19 in England and Wales by place of occurrence’. Unfortunately, the data making up these charts are not included in the accompanying spreadsheet so at this point I have had to estimate the numbers by reading them off the y axis – they are thus approximate figures.

The UK wide chart tells us that in the week ending 17th April around 9,500 people died from Covid-19, of these 5,600 died in hospital and around 3,900 died in care homes, hospices, at home and at other locations.

However, we also know from the UK wide data that in the week ending 17th April, the UK death rate was 12,500 above the seasonally adjusted average. Direct Covid-19 deaths accounted for 9,500 people which leaves a further 3,000 people apparently having died that week from indirect Covid-19 impacts, which is 24% of the total.

At this point in time these 3,000 deaths are not included in the daily briefing figures and additionally we don’t know what their causes of death are. Some may have died of Covid-19 but it is not recorded on their death certificate, it is also possible that these 3,000 people have died of other causes such as cancer, heart attacks, strokes, suicide etc. At this point we have no idea. This group of 3,000 people are over and above the seasonally adjusted average – so they are ‘excess’ deaths, they are indirect Covid-19 deaths, these people would not have died if we had not had a Covid-19 outbreak.

With regards to care home in Great Britain the ONS and Scottish data appears to suggest that of the excess deaths in care home during the week ending 17th April, approximately 2,200 people died from Covid-19 and around 2,800 people died from other causes – 56% of the total.


Trying to make sense of all this data and collating it to give a UK picture is a fiendishly difficult task Indeed it would appear that the Government are struggling with this. The hospital deaths chart for the UK states that in the week ending 17th April 5,600 people died in hospitals, whereas the England and Wales graphs states that for the same period 6,100 people died in hospital. Can we even believe the data we are being presented with?

And remember these figures relate to the situation 12 days ago. The implication of all of this is that it is more than likely that approaching 50,000 people have already died from the direct and indirect results of Covid-19 and not 21,678.






An imaginary cuckooland

Today, had I not been otherwise engaged, I would have gone to Dartmoor to search for cuckoos. I might have gone to Emsworthy Mire or to Gidleigh Common by Scorhill Farm or even to Throwleigh Common near to Great Ensworthy. Last year I listened to and saw cuckoos at these places, but sadly this year I will have to imagine them but I know they will be there!

To get my mind running I am assisted by some poetry – no less a person than William Wordsworth, describing his joy at hearing a cuckoo return to the Lake District.

O blithe New-comer! I have heard,
I hear thee and rejoice.
O Cuckoo! shall I call thee Bird,
Or but a wandering Voice?


O blessed Bird!
the earth we pace
Again appears to be
An unsubstantial, faery place;
That is fit home for Thee!

And John Clare, a contemporary of Wordsworth writing about cuckoos in his Northamptonshire village of Helpston.

The cuckoo, like a hawk in flight,
With narrow pointed wings
Whews o’er our heads – soon out of sight
And as she flies she sings:
And darting down the hedgerow side
She scares the little bird
Who leaves the nest it cannot hide
While plaintive notes are heard.

The cuckoo however, is a marmite bird, despite the millions of years of its evolutionary journey where it has re-invented itself as an exploiter of other birds, its habits repulse others. A paradox bird – the herald of spring and new life on one hand and the cruel deceiver taking life on the other.

Ted Hughes captures the latter view.

The cuckoo’s the crookedest, wickedest bird,
His song has two notes but only one word.

He says to the linnet:  Your eggs look so ill!
Now I am the doctor, and here is my pill.”

Within that pill, the cuckoo-child
Crouches hidden, wicked and wild.

He bursts his shell, and with weightlifter’s legs
He flings from the nest the linnet’s eggs.

Then bawls to the linnet:  “Look at me, Mam!
How quickly I’ve grown, and how hungry I am!”

She thinks he is hers, she is silly with joy.
She wears herself bare for the horrible boy.

Till one day he burps with a pitiless laugh,
“I’ve had enough of this awful caf.

And away he whirls, to Cuckooland,
And leaves her to weep with a worm in her hand.

What is so curious about this poem is the species of bird that Hughes has chosen to become the victim  of the cuckoo – a linnet. Very occasionally cuckoos will lay an egg in a linnet’s nest but it is a fatal mistake for the cuckoo as well as the linnet. Linnets are seed eating birds whilst cuckoos need a diet of insects; the cuckoo chick hatches, ejects the linnet’s clutch of eggs and then starves to death. Hughes was a good naturalist and a keen observer of nature, maybe I have missed something, maybe it’s just creative licence.

Part of the inherited evolutionary genius of the cuckoo is its ability to mimic the egg patterns of its host in both colour and markings. What makes this all the more extraordinary is that cuckoos parasitise a range of host birds. Wordsworth’s cuckoos’ would lay eggs in meadow pipit nests whilst Clare’s would have chosen the dunnock. In areas where there are extensive wetlands cuckoos utilise the nests of reed warblers. These three species of passerine birds have very different coloured and patterned eggs and as a result cuckoos have evolved into host-specific races.

My own interest in cuckoos developed when I worked at Wicken Fen in Cambridgeshire and met the legendary Professor Nick Davies who used the reserve as his laboratory to study cuckoos and their interactions with reed warblers. Nick is a brilliant academic, a lovely, lovely man and very generous with his time. Ecologists will know of him as well through his textbook ‘An Introduction to Behavioural Ecology’.

In his book ‘Cuckoos – cheating by nature’ he wrote

Without a moment’s hesitation, the warbler bows deep into the enormous mouth to deliver the food ….

I am amazed by what I have just seen …

Why, when confronted by a young cuckoo, so different in appearance and far too big to be one of their own chicks, are the warblers apparently so stupid?

I am amazed by the cuckoo chick too. How does it stimulate the little warblers to bring enough food?

And why do adult cuckoos abandon their young and entrust them to another species?

In his book Nick goes on to answer these questions, based on his own research at Wicken Fen along with his numerous PhD students and other academics around the world. It is the most amazing story – if you love nature, are puzzled by evolution and curious about animal behaviour you will love this very readable book – it will make lockdown time fly by.

And now …. I have been to ‘Cuckooland’ without leaving my house.


Strategies for coming out of lockdown?

I found a very interesting paper on the internet today. It is a modelling exercise which looks at how future behaviours in society (post lockdown) might impact on subsequent Covid-19 transmission rates. You can download the paper here. It is a collaboration between social scientists at Oxford and Zurich Universities and is titled ‘Social network-based distancing strategies to flatten the COVID-19 curve in a post-lockdown world‘.

The modelling looks at 5 scenarios: going back to how we all lived before the lockdown; how we lived before but cutting our social contacts by 50% and three scenarios where social contact was curtailed in subtly different ways. These latter three scenarios are termed strategies in the paper and I set these out (as per the paper) below. The language is a little tricky but hopefully you get the general idea. Figure 2 aims to give an  illustration of how these strategies differ and figure 3 presents the results of the modelling in terms of new viral outbreaks for each scenario.

Strategy 1: ‘Birds of a feather’ homophily strategy: Reduce geographic, organisational and socio-demographic difference to contact partners (A to B in Fig. 2)

To implement the first strategy, individuals need to pay attention to characteristics of their contact partners. Individuals tend to have contact with others which share common attributes, such as the neighbourhood they live in (geographical), the companies they work at (organisational), or that are of similar age (demographic)

Strategy 2: Strengthen community cohesion triadic strategy: Increased clustering among contact partners (B to C in Fig. 2)

For the second strategy, individuals must consider with whom their contact partners usually interact. A common feature of contact networks is ‘triadic closure’, referring to the fact that contact partners of an individual tend to be connected themselves

Strategy 3: Create ‘micro-communities’ strategy: Repeated contact to same others, rather than changing interaction partners (C to D in Fig. 2)

For the third strategy, individuals need to pay attention to their latest realised interactions and restrict their interactions these same people. This strategy reduces the number of contact partners rather than number of interactions, which is particularly important when contact is necessary for psychological well-being.

As can be seen the model demonstrates that our behaviour in the future in a post lockdown world will determine whether we embark on a second major outbreak or not.
Both of the ‘business as usual’ scenarios show that the outbreaks are quick and serious. The three ‘strategies’ give delayed and lower peaks. The model does’t include a ‘testing, isolation, contact tracing and quarantine’ approach but it does demonstrate that behavioural change at a population level can reduce the severity of a new outbreak by ‘flattening the curve’. During these lower level outbreaks a test and trace approach could be utilised to flatten these curves even more.

It doesn’t at this point really matter if you completely understand the subtlies of the three different strategies – not doubt other academics will propose similar / slightly different approaches. The modellers at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine have produced outbreak models which do include the ‘test and trace’ strategy. Let’s see what happens next!

The modelling does indicate that we are not going back to where we were in early March for the foreseeable future – going back to where we were, will require a vaccine or a new effective treatment.
However this work does provide hope – we might be able to meet some of our friends and families albeit in a much reduced way, in due course if we follow a new set of rules which dictate our behaviours and social interactions, once we have flattened the current curve and dampened down new outbreaks.

Covid-19 and Vitamin D

I’ve been doing a bit of digging into why BME people seem more susceptible to Covid-19 – apparently 68% of medical staff who have died so far are from a BME background.

… and they I found this on Twitter this morning, Dr. Mark D’Arcy  is an academic molecular biologist.

and then this Covid-19 / Vitamin D advice from the Scottish Government (link to full advice here)and this from Public Health England in 2016


so ….. this won’t do you any harm ….

Eggs, oily fish and cod liver oil are rich in Vitamin D.

And on a day like today get some rays …. spring and summer sunshine naturally raise the Vitamin D levels in our bodies.

We have also heard that asthma suffers are at an increased risk from Covid-19, a bit of googling produced this (one of many many papers on the topic)

Full reference here

We have also heard that obesity can cause Covid-19 complications for patients … and this on the NHS website (again one of many many papers on the topic)

Full reference here

Obviously Covid-19 can cause major lung damage and create breathing difficulties. What about smoking and Vitamin D? (one of many many papers on the topic)

and the paper’s conclusions are as follows

Full reference here

And … I received this reference from a fellow Twitter follower (thanks @tivjon).

Full reference here

I haven’t cherry picked papers to make this point, the academic literature is full of papers on these topics. Of course this isn’t my field and I don’t really know what to make of it or what the implications are either but I did think it interesting enough to share and if you choose to eat eggs, oily fish and spend more time in the sunshine it won’t do you any harm and you never know it might do you some good.

BUT it is complicated .. this study (and a number of others) suggests that inappropriate dosages of Vitamin D can make immunosuppressed patient more ill.

Full paper here

So … here is the Government guidance (remember we are currently ‘staying at home’ and often largely indoors so ….)

This is what the guidance suggests if you feel vulnerable- 10 ug per day








Trying and Testing Times – attempting to understand what we should be doing

I don’t know about you but I have lost the track and any sense of time …. I’ve just looked at my phone – today is Thursday – lockdown day 9 (counted it on my fingers). Nevertheless, over the last ‘couple’ of days the Daily Briefing, my Twitter feed and the numerous articles I have read have been full of the following words.

‘Test, test, test’, ‘Anti-gen’, Anti-body, ‘PCR machines’, ‘Chemical re-agents’ and ‘Ramping up’

All these words are set against a backdrop of targets, expectations, jargon, obfuscation and a distinct lack of clarity. For me, this is not a time for tribal politics, it is a period where I desperately want to understand the strategy. It is a moment where I want all the ‘experts’ to come together and say ‘yes’ – as a country we are doing what we should be doing.

For me, three issues are dominating the UK’s COVID19 narrative at the moment: the appalling death rate, the lack of PPE for front line staff and testing. This piece focuses on the latter.

If you remember back to the beginning of this pandemic outbreak a ‘few’ weeks ago we were following the so-called ‘mitigation’ strategy. This aimed to slow the spread of COVID19 but not necessarily stop it. It involved testing people who appeared to have contracted the virus to see if they were infected, quarantining them and then attempting to trace and test those who have been in contact with those who had COVID19. This is the test and trace strategy. This is the strategy deployed, it would appear in China and South Korea for example. It enabled China to restrict the spread of the to predominantly one district – Wuhan, in the case of South Korea the epidemic was contained and eradicated in just two out of their 18 regions.

In the UK the mitigation strategy was replaced rather quickly by the ‘suppression’ strategy following the publication of the Imperial College model which stated that unless we shielded the vulnerable, self-isolated, closed schools and universities (i.e. lockdown) at least 250,000 people would die. However, it is now becoming clear that there was another reason that we switched from mitigation to suppression – the UK’s lack of capacity to carry out the requisite number of tests. Johnson at one of the early briefings stated that we were going to ramp up testing from 10,000 a day to 25,000 and then up to 250,000. Days and days later we have barely got about 12,000 tests a day. Indeed, a couple of days ago Gove suggested that one of the problems with testing was a shortage of ‘chemical reagents’, a claim successful be-bunked by ITV’s Robert Peston.

So, the question is, why can Germany test 500,000 people a week and the UK is struggling to carry 100,000 over the same period? If you are interested in a detailed answer to this question, this article by Jack Dickens provides it. In essence in England we have closed regional testing centres over the past decade or so and centralised the process at one location, in mid February the decision was taken to re-open 12 regional centres. England was not prepared for a viral pandemic and as a result we have been caught short when it comes to the capability to carry out the necessary number of tests.

By contrast Germany appears better prepared, it had a plan in place to utilise testing facilities in the public, private and university sectors – thus it is able to test 5x as many people a day compared to England.

It is important to be clear about what the testing is aiming to achieve. What I had written already refers to a test to determine whether you are currently infected – the so-called anti-gen test. Such a test is carried out on a Polymerase Chain Reaction machine or PCR for short and requires specific chemical reagents to test for COVID19, obtained via a nasal swab sample. As I understand it, in England we are using PCR machines in the 12 / 13 Regional NHS testing centres and as a result there is a capacity issue.

Whilst I have never heard of a PCR before, by all accounts it is a standard piece of equipment used in research. Dr. Mark D’Arcy, a microbiologist and university lecturer wrote this on Twitter today ‘I dont understand the delay in testing. PCR is used to test. Every uni in the country, and thousands of biology labs have PCR machines, and ppl who know how to use them. I spent half my PhD running PCR’s. We have the facilities & ppl, we just dont have the organisation.’ The issue is one of a lack of preparedness and a future logistics challenge. I will return to anti-gen testing a little later.

That neatly brings us to the second test, the anti-body test, this is the one that was discussed at one of the daily briefings by the Deputy Chief Medical Officer, Dr Harries, the pin prick blood test, the one we were going to be able to order on Amazon. The anti-gen test will tell you whether you have already had COVID19 and have recovered. Despite what Robert Peston asserted during the Q&A at yesterday’s Daily Briefing this test cannot tell whether you are currently infected. There is a video I watched earlier where a Consultant Epidemologist puts Peston straight on this point and tells him to desist from making such a claim as it was misleading, wrong and dangerous! We have 1 million of these testing kits already (purchased from China) and they are currently being evaluated thus the oft repeated line that we need to be sure they work properly as an inaccurate test is worse than no test.

It seems to me that the anti-body test could bring three benefits (along with some important caveats)

  1. If you knew you had recovered from the disease you could ‘safely’ return to work, useful if you are twiddling your thumbs in lockdown and majorly reassuring if you are a front-line medical employee (caveat to follow)
  2. Getting a community wide perspective on the percentage of the population who have already had COVID19 would help improve the quality of the mathematical models. Have 10% or 60% of the population been infected and have subsequently recovered? It would also provide us with greater clarity on the percentage of asymptomatic COVID19 ‘patients’. Anti-body testing therefore gives the modellers their ‘p’ value and gives some indication of the degree of ‘herd immunity’. (Caveat to follow)
  3. People who have successfully survived a bout of COVID19 (as identified from an anti-body test) have a degree of immunity to the virus. Blood from such people can then be centrifuged, which separates the plamsa from the red blood cells, the plasma can then be transfused in those who suffering from an infection – potential clinical plasma immunotherapy for COVID19. I read that such an approach was being trialled in New York last week and I suspect such an approach is being used in the UK. (Caveat to follow)

And so, to the caveats, there is considerable uncertainty in academic circles about degree of immunity afforded to people who have recovered from COVID19, I have read that there are currently 5 clades (strains?) of the virus and that further mutations are possible. It is currently unclear what the implications of this are. Additionally, it is unclear what the longevity of immunity to coronaviruses is, previous epidemics have found that immunity deteriorates over time. This being a novel coronavirus, the research required to answer these questions is currently being undertaken – work in progress. Finally a single anti-body test on its own will not be enough to determine whether an individual has a continuous high anti-body level and therefore would not identify the best donors for use in plasma immunotherapy treatments. It is because of these caveats and no doubt others, that this pandemic will not be over until an effective vaccine is produced, thus the 12-18 month timeline.

All of which brings us back to the ‘ramping up’ the testing message and the ‘test, test, test’ mantra. Getting the strategy right going forwards will be vital. With regards to the anti-gen test (have you got COVID19 now), this needs to be prioritised now at front-line NHS staff and other key workers (as the Government has stated). Widespread community anti-gen testing at this point will not achieve a great deal, the virus in many areas is now far too widespread to enable a successful ‘test and trace’ strategy.

The implementation of anti-body testing programme, especially if it can be self-administered in the home will provide a lot of useful data and perhaps assist a gradual return to work and potentially help those suffering from COVID19 receive plasma therapy.

We are told that in the next 2-3 weeks the number of new daily cases will plateau and if we stick to the ‘rules’ the number of new cases will then decline exponentially. At this point it is anticipated that the lockdown measures will start to be relaxed. Of course, that will not be the end of the matter, the scientists expect that there will then be another COVID19 viral outbreak later in the year. By then we have all got to hope that the necessary preparations are in place – viz a viz, sorting out the logistics so that widespread anti-gen testing can be carried out – this will surely require expanding the existing NHS capacity by utilising the PCR machines and personnel located in the country’s Universities and ensuring the procedures, personnel and facilities are in place so that we can conduct an effective ‘mitigation’ strategy second time around consisting of an aggressive ‘test and trace’ policy.

I would like to thank Francois Balloux, Professor of the Genetics Institute at UCL , and an expert on viral pandemics, for taking the time to help me to understand the testing issue, via his Twitter feed (@BallouxFrancois).

Finally, I am certain that Government policy consists of, an albeit much more complex version or variant of the above, it would just be useful for them and for us if they clearly articulated their current thinking.




In other News: Spring is here

During the winter, nature goes into lockdown. Trees have shed their leaves and stand to attention …. birds scrabble around desperately searching for their next meal ….. insects live as eggs, larvae or cocoons. Waiting … patiently waiting for longer and warmer days.

And now spring is here! Birds are singing their heads off in anticipation of imminent breeding and the raising of a new family, butterflies are pursuing the same goal but rather than singing they are flittering. Trees are beginning to come into bud, leaves are magically beginning to appear.

But this is not a normal spring, we are part of nature, whether we think so or not, yet we now find ourselves in lockdown when the rest of nature is not. I am reminded of a poem …. The Waste Lands by T.S. Eliot, written in a different century about a far bigger catastrophe – World War One. Two of the most famous lines spring to mind ‘April is the cruellest month’ and ‘I will show you fear in a handful of dust’. The next few weeks are going to be difficult and traumatic for us, but, and I don’t want to sound trite, as a nation, we will get through this and life will go on, as The Waste Lands shows us.

Of course, elsewhere life is going on and watching it unfold is my favourite hobby, because whilst I think I know what is going to happen nature doesn’t always read my script. For many years now, I have been looking at the oak and ash trees in my garden, prompted by the old country expression ‘oak before ash – we are in for a splash and ash before oak – we are in for a soak’, I want to see who wins the race to be the first species to come into leaf.

In reality oak pretty much always comes into leaf before ash. In the last fifty years oak has always leafed before ash. It has not always been this way – in the 18th century when it was less mild ash did often produce leaves before oak – thus the quote.

Climate change has changed all of this – usually oak comes into leaf in late March-May which is about two weeks earlier than 30 years ago. Ash usually comes into leaf during April and May, about 7-10 days earlier than 30 years ago.

However, first in 2017 and now again this year, it is pretty much a dead heat – the ash is early. I’ve got 5 different oak trees in the garden and one big ash (seriously affected now by ash dieback). The oaks appear genetically different so I think they have come from different parent trees as the come into leaf at strikingly different times. One is way ahead of the others – the same happens every year. This particular oak has ‘beaten’ the ash, but the ash is ahead of the other four. I can’t really explain this as it has been a very mild winter in a warming world so oak should have beaten the ash by quite a distance.

When this pandemic madness has passed, at least for now, and we begin to reconstruct our lives and rebuild the economy, we need to remember that the global climate and biodiversity crises have not gone away and still need to be urgently addressed. If we learn one thing from all of this, it is that we live in a very connected world, and actions taken in one place can impact detrimentally elsewhere. Who would have thought three months ago that fruit bats and pangolins (the presumed original source of COVID-19) would play such a key role in our lives but we also need to remember that in reality they are the victims and not the villains in this whole saga.