The blonde cows of Galicia

Cow with bell. Galicia, Spain. Photograph by Raymond JC Cannon

Readers of my blog may know that I am a frequent visitor to the Province of Galicia, in NW Spain. There are many reasons to visit this attractive region, tucked away on the shoulder of the Iberian peninsula: the beautiful countryside, the empty beaches, the cold waters of the Atlantic!, the cuisine, the rustic architecture, the Gallegan culture (Gallego is the native language of Galicia) and so on.  But one I have not dealt with before, is the cows!

Young calves resting in a meadow. An idyllic life apart from the flies! Galicia, Spain. Photograph by Raymond JC Cannon

Galician cows are adorable. First of all they are such an attractive colour. The commonest breed by far, is the Rubia Galega, or the Galician Blond beef cow. Whether or not you are a meat-eater, I think it is fair to say that these animals are well-treated and seem to me to have a very comfortable existence. As these photographs show, they are usually to be seen sitting in an idyllic meadow, quietly chewing the cud, far away from any stress or hassle!

Rubia Galega cows in a meadow. Galicia, Spain. Photograph by Raymond JC Cannon

Galicia is a rural land of smallholders, with many small farms and scattered plots. Whilst agriculture in this autonomous region is becoming more intensified, it seems to be much more small-scale and self-sufficient than many others parts of Europe. Whilst that might not be good for productivity and profits, it certainly is good for cows!

Cows by traditional stone wall. Galicia, Spain. Photograph by Raymond JC Cannon

Alas, this quiet, small-scale way of life is probably not sustainable in the long term. Galicia has been changing since the 1950s, but it is still a relatively poor area – compared to other regions of Spain – without too much major industry, and a largely rural economy. Many people have left Galicia to look for work elsewhere, in Europe, and the rest of the world. So, many of the traditional stone farm houses – with their characteristic slate roofs (below) have been left to slide back into the earth from which they came!

Traditional Galician farm house abandoned. Galicia, Spain. Photograph by Raymond JC Cannon

I get the impression that, like a lot of agricultural communities (the UK included), the people working the land are getting on in years. Whilst it may be an idyllic and healthy life-style for some, running a small farm or smallholding does not make much money. Yet there must be opportunities to turn this unspoiled and pristine land into high value – i.e. high quality – crops, be they plant or animal.

Rubia Galega calf in a meadow. Galicia, Spain. Photograph by Raymond JC Cannon

Galicia is a very tranquil and uncrowded part of Europe. Most foreign tourists head to the beaches on the Mediterranean coasts of Spain. The Spanish themselves know to head north (not south!) in summer, and some parts of the coast do fill up a bit in August. But for the most part, Galicia is remarkably uncrowded, the roads are largely empty (by UK standards), and the cows get to life in peace and harmony! Have I painted an attractive enough picture yet?!

There are other cows in Galicia, including plenty of black and white Friesian milk cows in some areas, and a number of rare breeds. One of the strangest is the Cacehna cow (below), which seems to be a sort of all-purpose cattle breed; it can be used as a draft animal, for milk and for meat.

Cachena cow with odd horns. Galicia, Spain. Photograph by Raymond JC Cannon

Of course one reason why Galicia is so good for cows, is the grass! And the grass is good because it rains! But the climate is mild. Galicia, sticks out into the Atlantic, so expect sunshine and showers most days, and you will not be disappointed! So I’ll finish with a cow enjoying the sunshine in early June, by the sea.

Cow by the sea! Galicia, Spain. Photograph by Raymond JC Cannon

Katie the Kittiwake goes to sea

Black-legged Kittiwake (Rissa tridactyla) adult showing tongue

The Kittiwake nests are all empty now in Scarborough; on the cliffs and in the town, the birds have all gone. Long gone. Gone to sea.

Katie did not want to go to sea; she wanted to stay on her ledge above Marks and Spencer and try all the lovely food her gull-friends on the roofs around her were eating. But it was not to be. Her parents had looked after her and fed her well all through the summer, but now they were tired and needed a break. They wanted to go to sea. Katie would either have to come with them or look after herself, but she was quite incapable of finding food. Walking about the town begging for chips, like the herring gulls, looked like fun, but she didn’t think she could do it. Her legs were too short and she was not cut out for street life. Reluctantly, she came to conclusion that Yes, it was time to go. So one day in late August they all set off.

Newly-fledged Kittiwake chick just like Katie!

Katie had been down to the sea a few times with her parents. She had had a go at sitting on the ocean and trying to peck at the occasional morsel that passed by, but she had never really been out to sea. She had not flown far out, far away from the land. She had just jumped in and out, and sat on the sea wall smelling the ocean and watching all the other gulls.

Black-legged Kittiwake (Rissa tridactyla) Andrew C [CC BY 2.0 (

This time was different. Her parents looked serious and in no mood to put up with her reservations. Her Dad, Harold, said: ‘Come on Katie. If you don’t come with us now, you will sit here and starve. A Kittiwake has to go out to the sea. The ocean is where we really belong. You’ll see.’ So off they went; flying high and further out than Katie had ever been before.

Juvenile Kittiwake Bempton Cliffs, Katie Hostad, Flickr files (Creative Commons)

A lot of other gulls were leaving Scarborough at the same time, and soon they joined up with others in a large flock, heading north along the coast. The were soon joined by some other Kittiwakes flying over from the land. ‘Where do you come from?’ Katie asked one of them. ‘Newcastle’ he replied, in a strange accent she had not heard before. ‘Ooh eye, its great there said one of the older gulls; we have nests on a bridge, high above the river’. ‘Oh I was born on a bridge’ said one of the other birds from Scarborough. ‘It’s great, you have a lovely view and it’s very safe. There were so many of us, all close together on the bridge.’ ‘Sounds just like Newcastle’ said the newcomer. ‘So we have something in common then’ he said, flying closer to the bird from Scarborough who happened to be a female. ‘Perhaps we should stick together for a while’ he smiled. Yes Kittiwakes can smile, only they can see it. Humans don’t know what a Kittiwake smile is!

In winter. many kittiwakes move in small flocks …. Some flocks include both adults and first-year birds, but I doubt if there is any kinship between the individuals, as pairs and their offspring separate once they leave the colony in autumn. (Coulson, 2011).

Newly-fledged Kittiwake chick in July. Just like Katie before she went to sea!

After joining up with all the new birds from Newcastle, Katie looked around to see where her Mum and Dad had gone. They weren’t there. She couldn’t see them anywhere. ‘Where’s my Mum and Dad?’ screamed Katie! They’ve gone!

‘You are on your own now’ said one of the older birds from Newcastle. ‘You probably won’t see them again until next year now.’

Since Kittiwakes are not fed by their parents after they leave the nest sites, successful (and rapid) dispersal to good feeding sites is probably critical for the survival of the juvenile birds. (Wernham et al., 2002).

‘How am I going to survive!’ moaned Katie. ‘I don’t even know how to catch fish!’ ‘Don’t worry’ said the older bird. ‘Stick with us and we’ll show you. You’ll soon get the hang of it’. ‘Yea stick with us’ said some of the other juveniles. ‘Our parents have left us as well! We’ll be OK if we stick together’. So off they flew; a small flock of adults and juveniles, not related, but with a shared purpose and common interest. Flying into the unknown, but armed with the instincts and adaptations millions of years of evolution had provided them with. Enough to give them more than a sporting chance of surviving in this new world.

Black-legged Kittiwake (Rissa tridactyla) at Splashpoint, West Sussex, England. Ron Knight [CC BY 2.0 (

Katie and her companions flew north helped by a strong wind blowing from the south-west. They made rapid progress and were soon up near the coast of Norway.

‘My Dad came from Norway’ said Katie, excitedly. ‘Let’s go and find him! ‘It will be like looking for a needle in a haystack’ said one of the older birds. ‘What’s a needle and what’s a haystack said Katie’, confused. ‘Forget it’ said the older bird. Stick with us and we will look after you’. ‘OK’ said Katie, looking wistfully across to the foreign shoreline they were flying next to.

‘We are going to go much further north, and then we will head over to Greenland for the winter’. Greenland sounds nice thought Katie. It should be warm there by the sound of it. Little did she know!

Some young Kittiwakes probably remain on the other side of the Atlantic, off Newfoundland and Greenland (Wernham et al., 2002).

They flew on, stopping off to rest and feed on the surface of the sea at night. Eventually the reached a new land. A strange place with huge cliffs and thousands and thousands – hundreds of thousands – of Kittiwakes. Katie had never seen so many Kittiwakes. They joined up with the huge flocks and Katie started chatting to some of the other juvenile birds.

Hundreds of thousands of Kittiwakes nest at Diskobukta on Barent’s Island (Barenstøya), Svalbard Archipelago, where they are preyed upon by Arctic foxes.

‘Where do come from’ asked one of them. ‘Scarborough’ said Katie.

‘Where is that?!’ the other bird asked. ‘It’s a town far to the south from here. I was brought up on a ledge above Marks and Spencer’ said Katie. What’s that?’ said the other bird. ‘It’s a shop’ said Katie. ‘That sells food’.

‘Are there foxes there?’ said the newcomer. ‘Well a few’ said Katie, ‘but we don’t see them much’. ‘Here the foxes try and eat you’ said the local bird. It’s a nightmare I can tell you. My sister was taken by a fox. I can’t wait to get away from the land and head out to sea!’

So off they flew travelling west this time. Soon they saw something floating in the sea. ‘What’s that?’ asked Katie. ‘It’s ice stupid! Haven’t you ever seen ice before?’ ‘No’ said Katie. It looked very strange, and she was not sure if she liked it. ‘Look, you can stand on it’ said one of her new friends’ swooping down and landing on a small lump of ice.

In winter, some Kittiwakes remain as far north as the Arctic Circle, so how do these birds feed and survive in the total darkness? The answer is not known. Some may feed behind fishing boats using floodlights, whilst others may be attracted to luminous prey. (Coulson, 2011).

Black-legged_Kittiwake_(Rissa_tridactyla) on aniceflow (bergy bit). Gregory “Slobirdr” Smith [CC BY-SA 2.0 (

What happens next? Will Katie survive the winter and learn to look after herself? Find out in the next installment of Katie the Kittiwake!


Coulson, J. (2011). The kittiwake. A&C Black.

Wernham, C., Toms, M., Marchant, J., Clark, J., Siriwardena, G., & Baillie, S. (2002). The migration atlas: movements of the birds of Britain and Ireland. T & AD Poyser.

Katie the kittiwake – a story for children (of all ages!)

Black-legged kittiwake (Rissa tridactyla) adult, just like Katie’s parents!

Katie was born – if born is the right word for a bird which hatches out of an egg – on a ledge, three storeys up, above the back entrance to Mark’s and Sparks.

Kittiwakes nesting on a window ledge, just like Katie’s parents

Katie’s parents had nested there for many years and brought up all of Katie’s brothers and sisters on this tiny ledge. Katie’s parents had been together for five years. Before that her Mum, Flo, had been married to another bird, Sid, but tragically he had died in a terrible storm in the mid-Atlantic whilst coming back from Newfoundland. Yes he was a Canadian.

Kittiwakes don’t need aeroplanes to cross oceans, they just fly across, stopping to rest and feed on the surface of the sea, whenever they need a break. But sometimes, even the most experienced birds get caught in a storm and perish.

Katie’s Mum waited anxiously for weeks for Sid to return, but gradually she came to realise that he was not coming back, and rather than sit and grieve for her lost love for years and years, she decided to get on with her life and make a new start.

A handsome young kittiwake called Harold had been hanging around and making eyes at Flo for some time. He was a lot younger than her, but she was a good catch, still in her prime and with plenty of valuable experience. Wisdom counts for more than youth in kittiwake lives. Harold was happy to find such a clever and wise partner and soon the pair settled down together.

A handsome adult Black-legged kittiwake (Rissa tridactyla), just like Harold!

Kittiwakes live for a long time. Flo was already 23 and had successfully raised 29 chicks so far. It was a big family.  Harold was only 15, but together they had already had eight offspring. Katie was their ninth. Sometimes, some of Flo’s other children, all grown up now with their own partners and families, would fly over and scream a greeting. Only Flo knew who they were.

The oldest known kittiwake lived for more than 28 years in the wild. There are probably even older birds.

Harold was from Norway, and despite having lived in England for five years, he still had a slight accent. Kettiwoke, kittiwoke, he would cry, and all the other kittiwakes would laugh! Harold doesn’t know how to speak proper, they would say, before screaming “kittiwake, kittiwake” in the local accent.

Kittiwakes nesting on Castle cliffs, Scarborough. Like Katie’s ancestors did!

Katie’s ancestors used to live on cliffs overlooking the North sea, but long ago her great, great, great great grandfather – still affectionately known in the family, as Old Bob – decided to start a new life in the town. Other kittiwakes had started to nest on ledges high up on buildings. They looked very much like cliffs to a kittiwake, but had the advantage of being much more protected and secure – and best of all, there were no terrible peregrines there. Peregrines were hawks which made the lives of kittiwakes a constant nightmare: suddenly swooping down out of nowhere and snatching a poor gull out of the air. The victim was then killed and eaten in front of all his friends and family! What a terrible fate. Peregrines lived on the cliffs like the kittiwakes, so to get away from them was a real blessing, and since Old Bob made the move, together with his faithful partner Gladdis, generations of their descendants had grown up in relative safely, high above the same street where Katie now lived.

Close up of adult Black-legged kittiwake (Rissa tridactyla) like Katie’s parents

This year, when Flo and Harold returned to their ledge at the start of summer, there were some horrible spikes sticking up. Some human had put them there to try and stop the kittiwakes from nesting. Harold and Flo were a bit worried at first, but they knew what to do, they had watched other birds with the same problem. For 10 days they flew back and forth from the seaside, bringing bits of seaweed, mud, discarded fishing nets and anything else they could find; pilling it up over and between the spikes, until their little hill of material rose above the sharp projections, and they had a comfortable platform on which to lay their eggs.

Katie hatched out on the 5th July. Although she was balanced on a ledge 30 foot up above the pavement, there was no danger of her falling. She knew how to stay safe. Millions, probably billions, of kittiwakes  had balanced on ledges for millions of years. Those that had vertigo,wobbly knees or poor eye sight had all fallen off already! Those that were left were the descendants of expert balancers, surefooted seabirds than never put a webbed foot wrong, or felt a tinge fear, and were happiest high up and safe.

Black-legged kittiwake chicks, mid July

Katie loved the smell of food which came up from the supermarket below. Gulls have a very good sense of smell, and she could smell the freshly baked bread, sandwiches, fruit and lots of lovely things. But Katie’s parents only brought her fish. Fish, fish, fish every day.

“I’m fed up of fish!” Katie told her parents. Why can’t I have something else!? But you’re a kittiwake sweetheart, her mother said; kittiwakes eat fish.

“But Glenda gets chips!” Said Katie. Glenda, was her friend; a young herring gull who lived on the roof next door. Glenda’s parents brought her all sorts of different food: chips, bits of sandwiches, ice creams, even the odd sausage roll! “Why can’t I have some chips like Glenda”? Katie she said, petulantly.

Herring Gull (Larus argentatus) chicks on a rook, just like Katie’s friend Glenda

Well we don’t pick things up off the street like those gulls, said her father. We fly out to sea and bring you back fresh fish every day. Only the best for our little Katie!” She smiled. She knew her parents meant well and cared for her, but she still longed to try all those delicious things she saw people, gulls – and even pigeons! – eating every day. When she grew up, she thought, then she would eat chips and ice creams.

A young Herring Gull (Larus argentatus), just like Glenda!

There were lots of other kittiwakes on ledges nearby. They were always screaming and making a fuss, especially when one of the parents came back from a trip to the ocean. Some of the other chicks were getting quite large and starting to flap their wings.

Kittiwakes nesting on window ledge, like some of Katie’s neighbours

“You are going to to have to fly soon” said her father. “We will fly down to the sea and try some swimming”.

“I don’t want to” screamed Katie. “I don’t want to go to the sea. I just want to walk around the streets with Glenda!” Glenda had just left the roof now – well falled off really! – and was walking up and down the street making pathetic begging noises.

“Squeak, squeak, squeak” she cried, as her herring gull parents looked down anxiously from above.

“No, I’m not going to sea” said Katie. “I’m going to stay on land and go to school. In fact, I want to be an astronaut; the first kittiwake in space!” She laughed!

“Don’t be silly said her mother” Kittiwakes don’t go to school and they definitely don’t go into space” she laughed! “We will teach you everything you need to know. We’ll fly off together and spend the winter on the open ocean. You will learn how to fish, how to ride out a storm, and how to take care of yourself”. You’ll meet a nice kittiwake boy and then you’ll settle down together.”

“Shan’t!” said Katie. “Shan’t, shan’t, shan’t!”

Newly-fledged kittiwake chick, just like Katie!

Find put about what happened to Katie in the next installment of Katie the Kittiwake.

Newly-fledged kittiwake chicks




Just a tree, but also a work of art!

Stone pine (Pinus pinea) tree bark. Galicia, Spain

A came across this amazing tree earlier this year in Galicia, Spain. It was partially prostrate, but still growing. The beautiful, plate-like bark was adorned with mosses and lichens, which gave it a strangely artistic effect, almost like an abstract painting! It is, I think, the stone pine (Pinus pinea L.).

Stone pine (Pinus pinea) Rio Sor, Galicia, Spain

What struck me most about this tree however, was the remarkably beautiful composition and texture. The presence of the lichens pointed to clean and pristine environment.

Stone pine (Pinus pinea) with lichen

The bark of this tree is thick and plate-like, an adaptation which protects it against fires.

Stone pine (Pinus pinea) bark

Just a natural phenomenon, but a joy to see because somehow it conjures up a deep seated desire to connect with the substance of the world from which we have emerged.

Stone pine (Pinus pinea) bark. Rio Sor, Galicia, Spain

And also, I think, a love of patterns and textures, which must somehow be related to our ability to find meaning in the complexity of nature.

Fructose and foliose lichens Galicia, Spain

Bread of heaven

28 June 2019
Wheat growing on 28 June 2019, Beds, UK

We tend to take bread pretty much for granted these days. There seem to be abundant supplies – indeed much of it goes to waste – in every supermarket I go into (in the UK). But it was not always that way! There have been many times of bread shortages in the past. There was a Bread Crisis in Britain, 1795-96, when the country was fighting wars with France. Poor harvests and extreme cold even led to a bread riot in 1795. There were shortages of bread during the First World War, and bread was also rationed after WWII, for a couple of years.

28 June 3019
Wheat growing on 28 June 2019. Bedfordshire

Could it happen again? I think the answer is probably not, unless we do something very stupid! UK farmers now supply most of the wheat (as well as oats and rye) required by flour millers. I was surprised to learn that flour mills now source more than 80% of their wheat from British farmers, compared to less than half of that in the late 1970s (Grain Chain, 2016).

11 July 2019
Wheat growing on 11 July 2019. Bedfordshire

One reason I have an interest in wheat, is that for one period of my life (studying for a PhD) I spent a lot of time sitting in a wheat field! Studying this lovely creature (below). Very high populations occurred in 1979; there were hundreds of these aphids on each tiller, with billions (maybe trillions) taking to the air at the end of July that year!

The rose-grain aphid (Metopolophium_dirhodum) [CC BY 3.0 (
Wheat (Triticum aestivum) growing on 12 July 2019. Beds, UK

Wheat – most of which is winter wheat (planted in the autumn) – is a classic monoculture; a single crop stretching out to the horizon (below). Farmers get about 8 tonnes per hectare on average, resulting in a total British harvest of somewhere between 15 to 17 millions tonnes. That sounds good, but we are a fairly small producer on a world scale, although the EU as a whole is the largest producer (just above China).

29 July 2019
Wheat (Triticum aestivum) on 26 July 2019, Beds, UK

So, it seems to me that UK farmers are doing a good job on the whole, although how sustainable the whole system is, is another matter. We rely on a few varieties of wheat, grown as monocultures, reliant on inputs of fertilisers and pesticides. Farmers from the past would no doubt be puzzled to see the wheelings (below) left in fields to make these applications!

Wheelings to allow tractor access in a wheat field, Beds, UK

Similarly, the carbon footprint is not exactly light! We now have huge tractors and harvesters. The tractors race around country roads carrying their massive trailer loads (below); the fields at harvest time are a dangerous place (and not just for field mice!); I don’t think anyone gets out of their vehicles if they can help it. The drivers sit in their comfy cabins listening to their favourite music!

Harvesting oats on 15 July 2019. Beds, UK

Some might argue that all this industrialisation is the price we must pay for our current abundance, but vast amounts of bread are wasted, almost 900,000 tonnes of bread every year, reportedly. Nearly,  half the bread produced here in the UK, 44%, is thrown away! So, I think this shows, that a little more care and respect for the sacred loaf, could free up resources to enable a more sustainable production system, with more attention on preserving the health of the soil and the well-being of the wildlife that lives in and around these fields.


Cannon, R. J. C. (1986). Summer populations of the cereal aphid Metopolophium dirhodum (Walker) on winter wheat: three contrasting years. Journal of applied ecology, 101-114.

Livestock guardian dogs

I came across a flock of goats with a large white dog, near Cabo de Bares in Galicia, Spain. There is a lighthouse nearby.

The dog was very passive and did not react much when I approached the group and started taking photographs.

Livestock guardian dogs (LGD) as they are called and apparently being used more frequently these days to guard flocks of goats and sheep (and even chickens) from wolves. I knew that there were wolves in northern Spain, but I was surprised to learn that they are found right up to the coast in Galicia where these photographs were taken.

The above map indicates that wolves occur right up to the northernmost Capes, including Cabo Bares where I saw this flock.

Cabo de Bares, Galicia, Spain

The dogs are placed at an early age with the flock they come to guard, so that they form a close bond and defend them relentlessly against predators.

If the wolves attack, these dogs will stand and bark and hopefully that will be enough to deter the wolves. I think that this particular breed is a Pyrenean Mountain Dog, but I am not certain. Anyway, the goats seem happy enough!

Sadly, some of these working dogs suffer a shorter lifespan than dogs which are kept as pets. Hopefully, they have pleasant and satisfying lives in their beautiful surroundings.

I will look out for more of these LGDs now that I know they exist. There are an estimated 2,000-2,500 wolves in Spain, the biggest population in western Europe. The hunting of wolves is banned in Portugal but still allowed in some parts of Spain.

I should finish by saying that I am assuming that this dog is there to guard against wolves. I did not speak to the farmer. The wolves are distributed over a vast area at a maximum density of about 7 wolves per 100 square kilometers according to the Wikipedia article. So quite how big a threat they are, in this particular location, I don’t know.

Tour de Yorkshire comes to Scarborough

Tour de Yorkshire finish 4 May 2019

It was a cold and windy day here in Scarborough today (4th May 19), for the finish for Stage 3 of the Tour de Yorkshire 2019, cycle race. The waves were sweeping into North Bay, driven by a strong wind. It must have been grueling to have cycled 135 km in this weather. The men’s race finished about 18:30. The women’s race had taken place earlier.

North Bay Scarborough

I have no idea who the individual cyclists are, but some people may recognize them.

Tour de Yorkshire finish 4 May 2019

I missed the winners! The light was so bad that it was hard to get any useful shots. But then the sun came out for a few minutes and I managed to get some photos of the later riders.

Tour de Yorkshire finish 4 May 2019

The crowd had waited patiently in the cold for the riders to arrive, but those beneath the large screen could follow the progress of the race via the helicopter video. Sadly two riders crashed out.

Tour de Yorkshire finish 4 May 2019

For race details of the men’s race, see here.

It was all over in a flash, but exciting and one cannot help but be impressed (and in awe) of the cyclists who could cycle so far and so fast, in such awful weather!

North Bay, Scarborough