Thursday, September 24, 2020

Bird Alert!


Video by Birds of the Huon

Did you know that September 16th was Plover Appreciation Day?  I didn’t either.  Australia has two different species of its own - The Hooded Plover and the Red - capped Plover and around twelve migratory ones.  Many of them are highly threatened because they like the same places that humans do - parks, beaches and playing fields, and prefer to lay their eggs on the ground. Some plovers will have just returned from as far away as Siberia and all are now laying eggs and raising chicks so it’s a good time to stay away from them. Tasmania’s Plovers or more correctly Masked Lapwings or Spur -Winged Plovers (officially Vanellus miles) are renowned for swooping at this time of year.

Our plovers which for some reason always remind me of accountants with their white shirts, neat little black hats and their busy purposeful demeanour,  will not only swoop to  keep you away from their young, but also do a lot of shrieking.  Despite that, they seldom strike and despite the urban myth, the spurs on their legs are not poisonous. Still, you are advised to stay well clear to protect the birds. To protect small children, dogs and the like it’s a good idea to find a different route if you can, or wave coloured flags or decorated sticks.  An excellent suggestion regarding swooping birds in general from Wires is to carry an open umbrella. However, this should never be used to threaten the birds in any way as it will only make them more aggressive.  Read more here 

You should never try to move the nest or chicks as they will most likely be abandoned. As both Wires and Parks and Wildlife remind us, breeding season only lasts a few weeks and avoidance is a small price to pay for the privilege and pleasure of having birds in our midst. Check out Backyard Buddies for ways to help your neighbourhood plovers besides leaving them alone.

Please remember too, all native birds including plovers and magpies are protected in Australia and it’s a criminal offence to interfere with any bird, or to remove eggs or nests.

Baby birds

Another thing you might see at this time of year is baby birds which have fallen out of nests, especially if we have had high winds or during early flying attempts. Don’t touch them at all unless they are injured, otherwise the parents will no longer want to look after them. See the little graphic by Wires below and contact them if birds are injured or you have any other problems with birds Wildlife Rescue 1300 094 737 or read more here.



Thursday, September 17, 2020

Suicide Prevention – Australia and R U OK Day

Australia has had a National Suicide Prevention Strategy since 2017. In 2018, 3128 people lost their lives to suicide and another 65,000 attempted to end their lives, making it a serious health concern, especially as the rate has continued to increase. It remains the leading cause of death among young Australians between 12 – 25 and several other groups are also over -represented such as men of working age, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander People and members of the LGBTI community. The latest plan for the the next five years (2020 -2025) aims high.  It hopes that “With the right systems in place and support easily accessible, no Australian in suicidal distress should see suicide as their only option.” 

As with other national strategies around the world, there are proposals for programs and interventions to increase resilience, to increase awareness and well -being, to reduce stigma and bullying, to promote social cohesion and specific programs for at risk groups. It also promises to evaluate such programs and to promulgate those which work well. Some programs are especially relevant to Australia. These include those which seek to address rural adversity, homelessness and financial stress and the training of so -called ‘gatekeepers’ such as community leaders, coaches, Elders and teachers,who may be among the first to notice when people are in emotional distress.

Another rather unique and important aspect is the focus on workplace initiatives. This is because three quarters of those who die by their own hand in Australia are middle aged men (median age 44.5).  The purpose of R U OK Day (Are You OK? Day) is to check in on colleagues and friends to see how they are doing. However, some people would find it very intrusive to be quizzed about their mental health, especially at work and I can't help wondering what happens to those people who receive some support at work but then lose their jobs?  One of the biggest barriers we have is the 'blokey' culture which values a high degree of independence and stoicism and makes it difficult to admit to not being able to cope.

As far as employers are concerned, workplace efforts to improve mental health can also help to reduce absenteeism as well as increasing productivity and engagement. By way of example, Worksafe NSW has funded free programs via The Black Dog Institute to train managers in frontline industries such as transport, postal services and warehousing.

Here’s an example of how to help a workmate

Most of these are excellent and well intentioned ideas, however there are limitations.

1.       While funding for mental health and suicide prevention has increased in recent years, many people still fall through the cracks. As it is, of the 37,341 calls received by Australia’s specialised suicide helpline, The Suicide Call Back Service in 2017 – 2018, 13,259 could not be answered. Men particularly seem to appreciate both the anonymity of helplines and the after hours availability of such services. Rural areas where isolation contributes to feelings of helplessness unfortunately have even fewer support services. While digital services hold promise in future, their success depends on intended recipients having both good internet access and sufficient computer skills to be able to access them.

2.       Most people who end up in hospital emergency departments are usually only able to be given more than short term relief. Hospital services in general are overloaded and do not always meet the needs of those in distress.  It is widely recognised that far more follow – up is needed. While counselling may be offered during a crisis, it rarely extends beyond  6 – 10 weeks although at least twelve months is considered necessary. It should also include those who have lost a loved one to suicide. Greater recognition is starting to be given to survivors of suicide attempts and those who have overcome similar difficulties. Using them as peer support workers has been shown to be effective so long as their circumstances are similar to that of the person who needs help.

 4.   Many people who are facing practical problems or adverse life events may be better served in the community or by other services such as relationship counselling, financial assistance,   housing or employment, many of which are also under funded and not able to respond adequately.

5.   The underlying problems which cause people to despair also receive little attention. We still have people living in tents after being burnt out in last summer's bush fires. Homelessness or being able to find an affordable place to live remain problematic for those on low incomes. Under -employment, insecurity of employment  and elder care were problems long before the pandemic and we also  had things like Robodebt - the harassment of poor people, over real or imaginary debts created by an algorithm, which would certainly add to  people's stress. More diffuse issues such rising inequality, growing competitiveness and the environment generally,don't rate a mention at all.
  As  one Twitter respondent wrote: 
“It’s sure weird how depression and anxiety are huge problems for young people in a society where everything costs more every year and every single human act gets monetized, on a planet that is boiling alive, must be a coincidence.”
Even the most hardened economic rationalists among us should realise that the loss of lives to suicide has economic costs too. I don't have figures for Australia, but the  CDC estimated that a single suicide costs the US approximately $ 1,329,553 - mostly in lost productivity, and the combined cost of suicide and suicide attempts costs the US economy in the order of $70 billion a year. Perhaps in the long run it would be cheaper to address some of the structural problems than having to spend more and more on mental health.

In the meantime however despite these shortcomings, there are many people and organisations who can help, especially in the event of an immediate crisis. Some of the Australian organisations are listed below and most of their websites offer additional resources. R U OK has tips on how to approach friends, family, workmates and others and how to recognise if someone may not be alright. Do be a be a bit sensitive here though. If people don’t want to talk, don’t push, but as R U OK says, " A conversation can change someone's life " 
Below are their suggestions as to how school students can help each other

Don’t forget the elderly either. They may not admit to being depressed or stressed but they may have been isolated during lock down or have lost people close to them. Beyond Blue has suggestions on  how to help older people. Just knowing that you care enough to ask will be a comfort to some  people, but be sure to follow up. Don't just  be sensitive on one day of the year.

Where to get Help

Lifeline 13 11 14

MensLine Australia 1300 78 99 78

SANE Australia Helpline 1800 187 263

QLife 1800 184 527 - (LGBTI Helpline)

Kids Helpline 1800 551 800

Bereavement Support 

StandBy Response Service 0418 575 680

National Indigenous Critical Response Service 1800 805 801

Tuesday, September 15, 2020

Suicide - A preventable tragedy? – 1 International Perspectives on Suicide Prevention


How to know if friends or workmates need help

It was World Suicide Prevention Day last Wednesday and Australia’s R U OK Day (Are you OK?). These reflect an important and growing problem.  According to the World Health Organisation, around 800,000 people took their own lives in 2016 and for every suicide at least 20 other people attempted to do so.  Globally, it is the second leading cause of death among 15 – 29 year olds and the leading cause of death of young people in Australia. While suicide rates tend to be higher in poorer countries,wealthier countries such as Australia, Scandinavia, France and the USA had the second highest rates and higher rates than say, Mexico, Brazil or China.

These events don’t just affect the immediate family, but also their co -workers, their communities, the first responders  and so on, and if the work coming out of India is any guide, things will most likely get worse in the wake of COVID 19, as people experience job losses, economic loss, loneliness and isolation, uncertainty and bereavement.  I personally think we need far more than one day a year to consider this issue - it has taken me almost a week just to read some of the literature, but in this post I will just touch on what other countries are doing and the next post will be about Australia’s response. If you want to know more about what is being done around the world and in various sectors, click on the World Health Organisation’s full text here.

Some forty countries including Australia have put together Suicide Prevention Strategies. Broadly, the key concepts areas are summed up by the acronym LIVE LIFE

The first group of four (in red) revolves around what Governments could or should do:
The L stands for showing leadership by establishing policies and ensuring multisectoral collaboration between departments, schools, the medical profession and so on. The "I" stands for interventions and implementation. V is for Vision, Innovation and Financing and E is for Evaluation, Monitoring and Research.

The second L stands for less means. It is about reducing access to the ways in which people end their lives.  India for example, is putting laws in place to restrict access to pesticides, Switzerland is removing guns from the home to a central repository and restricting sales of both guns and pharmaceuticals. It is also looking at putting barriers on tall buildings. When the Israeli Defense force mandated that weapons must be kept on base at weekends, there was a 40% drop in suicide by Defense Force personnel. A study by the American Public Health Association shows that states which have tighter gun laws have fewer suicides.
Another example comes from the Republic of Korea where they have glass sliding doors between the platforms and the rails on subways which only open when the train is in the station, especially on the line which serves the main university in Seoul. 
The reasoning behind this is that everyone has bad days or bad moments like being fired from a job or getting bad marks, but suicide is an impulsive act, so the greater the distance and difficulty between the event and the act, the less likely someone is to carry it out. That is also the purpose of things like barriers on bridges, such as we have in Tasmania, or the proposed net California is building on the Golden Gate Bridge.

“I” is about interaction with the media – raising awareness, not sensationalising cases of suicide or enabling copycats by giving precise details.

“F” is about forward thinking - teaching young people to become more resilient and learning strategies to cope with life’s adversities. 

“E” is about early identification, assessment, management and following up of those at risk.

Many countries have had considerable success in implementing these concepts. Scotland for example, which has had a Suicide Prevention Strategy since 2002, has been able to reduce its suicide rate by 20% in the interim, making it much lower than most other European countries. Sweden which has had a “Vision Zero” policy since 2008 has also greatly improved with a 50% reduction in deaths attributable to road safety improvements alone. Both countries have also paid attention to dealing with alcohol and drug problems.Given that the American Public Health Association has put the cost of suicide to the US economy at  $70 billion a year, largely in lost productivity alone, there are sound economic arguments for national governments to consider their own strategies, quite apart from the human cost. 
Helping people to choose life
Helplines and Hotlines have also proven to be highly successful, responding to over two million calls in 2017. While it isn’t possible to list all these here, you can see those for your country  here  or on this WhatsApp site which also has a downloadable app. You could also check the Befrienders website which has contacts worldwide.

Tuesday, September 08, 2020

Move over Teddies, the Scarecrows are coming (not that we don’t love teddies)

Beautiful Scarecrow Wattle Queen, Hurstbridge, Victoria
-Photo courtesy of Sabi Buehler
I thought we needed something cheerful today, especially for those people still in lockdown, which includes a lot of friends in Victoria. At Hurstbridge where my sister lives, they normally have a spring Wattle Festival at this time of year but because level 4 lockdown rules still apply, they have gone virtual and local people have turned their talents to making a Merrymakers Scarecrow Village which attracted 150 entries.Although organisers have asked for them to be taken down this week out of respect for the environment, you can still catch them here. Nor are they alone. 

Ready to brighten someone's day and may or may not scare the birds
-Photo courtesy of Sabi Buehler
Many UK communities have scarecrow festivals too and the village of Kilkhampton in Cornwall is host to around 150 of them. The USA also produces large crops of scarecrows, especially around Halloween and when it comes to scarecrows, Japan has a long tradition of making Kuebiko as they are called and is very creative and prolific too. Among the more famous ones in Japan are those in the village of Nagoro  where its 35 residents are outnumbered by more than 350 scarecrows.  Most of these characters have been made by Ayano Tsukiami, who missed the people of her childhood who had lived in the village and who have since either died or moved away.  These scarecrows must be good at attracting rather than scaring people because a previous report put the number of residents at 29. 

This one really would scare the birds and everyone else
-Photo courtesy of Sabi Buehler
Scarecrows have been around since at least 3000 BC when the ancient Egyptians needed to keep birds off the grain they were growing along the Nile. Whether you need to keep birds off your setting fruit, your spring seeds and seedlings or off your strawberries or your autumn harvest or are just making them for fun, I hope some of the ideas below will inspire you to make your own.  Don’t follow them too slavishly. At worst you’ll have an ornament for Halloween.
As any search of YouTube will show, there are hundreds of ways to make your own scarecrow, but I favour those which don’t require you to own or use power tools. That way even children can make them and without adult supervision. I also prefer those which use natural or recycled materials, rather than store bought ones.  Nor do you always need straw. I saw one made with autumn leaves and Gabrielle Blair’s don’t use stuffing at all, yet the trailing fabric blowing in the breeze will probably be quite effective at chasing away birds.
Quick Easy and Traditional with Carly and Rosanne

I love the way Gabrielle Blair’s creepy ones make use of twigs in this one

Claire makes use of recycled materials and if you really want to scare birds away her added embellishments may prove effective.  (Don’t buy your bubble wrap though– use packing material that would otherwise end up on landfill).

If you are looking for really creepy, then see the amazing work of master scarecrow maker PumpkinRot

P.S.Thanks for letting me use your photos Sis!

Thursday, September 03, 2020

Eat those Weeds

Chickweed - Stellaria media tastes pleasant and green but has twice the iron of spinach, plus Vitamins A and C

Don’t toss those weeds unless it’s into a salad!

I’ve just come across a really interesting story about a man in North West Tasmania, Bruce French, who has been collecting data on the nutritional aspects of weeds in many countries with the aim of “helping the hungry to feed themselves.”

While the main purpose of Bruce’s work and the organisation he works with has been to catalogue information about traditional sources of food in poorer countries and to examine their nutritional value, it also has lessons for people in wealthy countries.  As he said in his Henry Somerset Reserve Lecture*

“What we have been busily, and I think unwisely doing over recent years, is reducing the range of plants that we grow and use as food. I think it leads to poor diets, poor ecology and unsustainable agriculture. The tide is turning fairly fast and instead of filling up bellies with the same bland few species and varieties, many people are again looking at ecologically sound, diverse food crop production. We have just about used up enough chemicals and sprays and water trying to prop up our narrow range of varieties, and the time has come for a fresh agro -ecological approach to food production.

In a small section of the world where this narrow diet range is producing unprecedented obesity while the other half of the world dies of under-nutrition, it is time for us to show a social conscience. One child dying of malnutrition every 4-5 seconds is an obscenity. It is also unnecessary. Malnutrition of both the obesity and under-nutrition varieties is limiting lifestyles as well as life-spans. In terms of human dignity and human potential that is tragic.”

 And let’s not forget those poor people in wealthy countries either, whose diet is often less than optimal too. Not everyone can afford to be a locavore, shopat farmer's markets or buy expensive organics.


Sow Thistle - Soncheus Oleraceous - Young leaves are good in salads and soups. they contain iron, calcium and vitamins

I am not going to suggest using native plants because we have too few of those already, only those European plants which have become naturalised here. Nor am I going to suggest foraging, especially not from roadsides or waste ground, because you don’t know if they’ve been sprayed or affected by other contaminants such as lead, heavy metals or animal waste. It’s much better to leave a little wild space somewhere in your garden or even a planter box into which you can sprinkle a few seeds.  Nor should you eat anything you don’t know. Ask a nursery or your local Botanic Garden if you aren’t sure. Some plants though not poisonous, naturally contain chemicals such as oxalates to which some people may be allergic. Always try a small quantity first and always wash them well too. No responsibility or liability is accepted for any ill effects.


Dandelion - Taraxacum officinale - A tenacious dandelion struggled up through dead vegetation.Young leaves are good in salads, the root is often roasted and ground as a coffee substitute. It is rich in iron and calcium and has many Vitamins including A, B6, E and K.


In Germany people used to have a green soup in early spring to cleanse the body after the heavy food of winter – the salt meats and rich cakes. My favourites for that are nettles, chickweed, sorrel and young sow thistles. Most of these greens also work well in smoothies or omelettes or just as an addition or replacement for silver beet and lettuce which usually aren’t abundant yet. The French have long used tender shoots of dandelion as a staple in their salads and cultivate them especially for that. In other words, they treat them as we do celery and cover them to keep them pale and tender.  Sometimes scorned as “bed wetters’ in Australia, the onion smelling weed with triangular leaves and green striped white bell flowers, not to be confused with snowdrops, are highly sought after in Denmark as wild garlic. Please check with someone first though as many bulbs are toxic. Sorrel adds a sharp lemony tang to potato soup or something bland like cottage cheese, but use sparingly as too much oxalate isn’t that good for you. Nasturtium leaves add a fresh peppery flavour to salads and are excellent on egg sandwiches. Fennel seed can be used in place of caraway particularly in pickles and the green fronds are delicious with fish. They are said to hold the scales together as well as making it easy to digest. Be careful with the seeds.  Although bees love it, fennel is regarded as a pest so don’t let them fall to the ground.

Wood Sorrel has a sour taste and lots of Vitamin C. It was widely used in England before much larger French Sorrel became available


It’s true that some weeds can become pests or out -compete the cultivated plants we try to grow, but to my mind, that means we aren’t eating them fast enough. If we can make use of them we not only add new flavours and some variety to our diet, but keep their populations in check. Some are now being specifically grown for the supermarket and restaurant trade. Think of Mesclun salad for example, what is it but a mixture of assorted leaves and sometimes flowers? 


Nasturtium - Tropaleum Majus. Both leaves and flowers add peppery zing to salads and egg dishes and the flowers can also be stuffed with cream cheese for a colourful appetiser and one that's packed with vitamins too


I have always been a weed lover, and not just because I am a lazy gardener. Where the ground is loose, they bind the soil and retain water. Where it’s heavy or hard -packed clay, weeds will send their roots down and break up the soil for other plants. They also draw up nutrients and provide shelter from wind and sun for young seedlings. They attract bees and other pollinators and some weeds can even repel insects or attract them so that they leave other crops alone.  A mosaic of plants also tends to discourage the spread of disease and pests. Though it does make harvesting more difficult and lowers crop yields, it is much better than no crop at all.  The fact that weeds also have nutritional and even medicinal benefits is a bonus. 


Pot Marigold or Calendula - Calendula officinalis- makes a lovely addition to the garden or a salad. In England before the arrival of saffron, the petals were used to colour cakes so they would look as if they had been made with a lot of eggs.  

 For many more non -native suggestions for Australia see "The Forager's Handbook," by  Adam Grubb and Annie Raser -Rowland, Hyland House, 2012, 2013, 2014