Thursday, 10 October 2013

Tony’s Newsround

Look Who's Talking

"The brain has a critical window for language development between the ages of two and four, brain scans suggest. Environmental influences have their biggest impact before the age of four, as the brain's wiring develops to process new words, say UK and US scientists. The research in The Journal of Neuroscience suggests disorders causing language delay should be tackled early." (BBC News)

They have used scans to detect the presence of myelin – "the insulation that develops from birth within the circuitry of the brain" and found that it remained constant, but "had a stronger influence on language ability before the age of four, suggesting there is a crucial window for interventions in developmental disorders."

It will be interesting to see what this can tell us about how language develops with children with severe autism, as their speech is often very rigid, with pronounced echolalia, and no ability to use what Chomsky called "transformational grammar" – that's the ability to turn a sentence around, and from "Do YOU want a drink?" generate a reply, "I want a drink". A severely autistic child will just repeat "Do you want a drink?" or even use it to mean "I want a drink".

Portmanteau bakery: Wonder what's next?

The BBC reports that there is a sudden craze for "portmanteau bakery" where different bakery products are mixed to produce something different:

"The "duffin", a mash-up of a doughnut and a muffin, is the latest portmanteau baked good to make the news. It started with the Cronut, an unholy mongrel of croissant and doughnut. Then followed the townie (a tartlet crossed with a brownie) and the brookie (a blend of brownies and cookies endorsed by Martha Stewart, no less). Oh, and there's also the muffle (muffin plus waffle), the crookie (croissant, meet cookie) and the macanut (a macaroon-doughnut fusion)." (BBC News)

But all along, Jersey has had for ages a recipe for a "deep-fried doughnut", which is an interesting product. It's not quite a fusion, but deep frying a doughnut certainly seems to fit with these unusual products quite well. And it is not a common recipe, although there's a Japanese product called Okinawan Dango which is very similar, but without the richness of Jersey butter (or in fact any butter).

What is the "deep fried doughnut" called here? It is our very own "Jersey Wonder". Who needs the duffin, when we have a home-made traditional recipe? You can keep your Cronuts. And Jersey Wonders will be on sale for a modest sum, freshly baked, at the Cider Fayre coming up at Hamptonne, along with cabbage loaf.

Focus on: Badgers

"A government minster said "badgers moved the goalposts" when asked why marksmen failed to reach a cull target." (BBC)

I sometimes wonder if these sound-bites are deliberate. This one conjures up an image of badgers going to football pitches and digging up and taking away the goalposts, probably in the middle of the night.

The UK at the moment is in the middle of a badger cull. The aim is to reduce the infection of cattle with TB, which is carried by the badgers. Whether or not such a cull is effective or not seems to depend on who is carrying out the research, as there are varying reports, some supporting the idea of a cull, and some saying that a cull will have no effect. It's one of those areas – like climate change – where there are some loud voices shouting, confusing the outsider.

The fact is that the adult badgers have few natural enemies, but the cubs can fall prey to by foxes, and on occasion by large birds of prey like golden eagles and buzzards. Matt Ridley comments that

"The badger is what ecologists call an example of 'meso-predator release': a middle-ranking generalist predator whose numbers are abnormally high because they no longer face predation from larger, "apex" predators."

Badgers themselves, however, are predators on hedgehogs. They are undeterred by the spines. Where they thrive, hedgehog populations shrink, and in some cases, vanish. And they are also voracious predators of bumble bee nests. Badgers are, along with the wax moth, at the top of the predatory tree in terms of their destruction of bumble bees. The Bumble Bee Trust has issued a warning about this: "in some areas of the UK where the badger population has exploded we are concerned about what effect this will have on bumble bee populations". Impervious to bee stings, they will dig out bees' nests in tree roots.

Liz Henderson, writing in the Shropshire Star notes that:

"he has a voracious appetite for anything that comes his way; ground-nesting birds' eggs and nestlings, hedgehogs, bumble bee nests – all doubtless much tastier than the slugs he is supposed to live on, and all totally unable to defend themselves against his powerful jaws. The result is, of course, the greatest ecological disaster of modern times – there is no other way to describe the complete wipe-out of all Shropshire's curlew and lapwing, which are poignantly listed in my 1981 bird book as 'widespread, locally common'."

All of this runs counter to the cute, cuddly image we have of Brock the Badger. As Liz Henderson points out – "of course the badger looks incredibly sweet and cuddly, especially on wildlife programmes with nice plinkity-plonk music in the background. Doubtless however his cuteness is entirely lost on the hedgehog which is about to be eaten alive."

And it should be pointed out that there is an absence of badgers in Jersey. The 2013 report into "Animal Notifiable Diseases" has a table giving the last date of an occurrence of a disease. Anthrax last occurred in 1966. BSE more recently in 2002, Foot and Mouth disease in 1981 but there has never been any reported case of Bovine Tuberculosis. Absence of badgers means absence of TB.

Adam Quinney, a cattle farmer and NFU Vice President has no compunction about the need for a cull in the TB "hotspots":

"Bovine TB is a hugely complex disease. But the key points about it are quite simple - it's an infectious disease; it's endemic in some areas of the country; it's posing a huge threat to our beef and dairy farmers; and while cattle are slaughtered to stop its spread nothing is being done to control it in wildlife."

So should the cull go ahead? In Ireland, badgers have been culled for almost ten years and incidents of bovine TB have been falling, meaning fewer cattle are slaughtered. And culling takes place in Switzerland and France, Spain and other countries. . In addition, deer and wild boar are culled in Spain, Poland and the Baltic countries Wild buffalo and boar were culled in Australia and they too have now eradicated TB.

What is interesting is that I have not been able to see anything like the level of protest against the culls that I see in Britain. When France identified badgers as a source of infection, they just went out and culled badgers.

It is rather like the horsemeat scandal, when the real issue was not about people eating horse meat which was not labelled as such, but the fact that it was horsemeat they were eating, a taboo which European countries would find strange.

Likewise, there is an emotional response about badgers which, I suspect, has little to do with the science one way or another, and a lot more to do with the British sensitivity to animals. Where does this come from? My own hypothesis is that this is a result of the upheaval of the industrial revolution in the UK. It is notable that settlement and independence in the USA mostly preceded the great shift from land to factory, and the USA culls wild deer for bovine TB without any of these prominent protests.

As Ronald Hutton has pointed out, in the course of just 100 years, industrialisation was rapid in the UK, with around 80% of the workers in the countryside at the start, and 80% in cities and working in factories by the end. It saw the rise of the romantic movement, the sudden prominence in Victorian literary circles of the rural god Pan. It was a backlash against the alienation of industrialisation and the urban disconnect. And the cultural legacy of that today still causes us to  romanticise the natural world in a way that the farmers themselves often find hard to understand.

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