Saturday, September 11, 2010


If you’re a fan of Nirvana, you may be familiar with this plant which, in Bedfordshire, is only found on one small patch in the Clophill area. It’s a sprig of Pennyroyal, the subject of the song Pennyroyal Tea, written by Kurt Cobain, the title alluding to its abortifacient properties. It’s a depressing song and featured on the band’s last album, In Utero.

It’s a shame that such a beautiful plant is known everywhere primarily for its poisonous properties. The fragrance is beautiful and one of my favourites!

[Photo credit: BiologyProjectWiki]

I’ve read a lot about scent recently. The September edition of Eureka in The Times featured an article on 'bioboundaries' and the work of scientists seeking to identify the volatile compounds in Africa’s Wild Dog urine that stop rival packs from entering their domain. Dr John ‘Tico’ McNutt, working in Botswana, comments: “If we could identify (and synthesise) the chemical components that signal residence and territoriality to Wild Dogs, we could provide residents that have no neighbours (at the edges of wildlife areas, for example) with ‘virtual neighbours’ and in so doing, decrease the extent of conflict these endangered species encounter in areas where they can cause problems for farmers.”

Then, I’ve just finished reading Philippa Forrester’s wonderful book, The River. It’s the story of Philippa’s relationship with the wildlife cameraman Charlie Hamilton James and the early days at their cottage alongside the River Tipple in the West Country. It wasn’t long before they discovered Otters on the river and set out to film them, succeeding to the point where a mother and her two cubs would regularly swim right past Charlie on their way along the river.

But one evening their behaviour changed completely and they no longer wanted anything to do with him at all. This happened for a while, and an examination of the animals’ prints revealed that rather than pass Charlie, the mother was leading her cubs out of the river into the surrounding fields and right round him, entering the water again further downriver where it was safe.

Finally, following a bath one night, Charlie realised what the problem was. I’ll let Philippa relate what happened:
Half an hour later there was a lot of yelling from the bathroom. I made my way upstairs wondering what had happened. Had he got his toe stuck in the tap? Had we run out of toilet roll? Was there an otter in the bath? Had he suddenly realised how big the hole in the ozone layer was? In the bathroom I waved my way through a fog of deodorant. What with that and the chilli smoke from the night before, my lungs were beginning to feel the strain.
‘Smell this.’
‘I can’t do anything but. This isn’t good for you or the ozone layer, you know.’
‘No, smell it. Really smell it.’
‘I can. It’s horrible.’
‘Well, it is. It’s too much.’
‘Does it smell familiar?’
‘I don’t know. It’s a bit like oranges. Is this the one you normally wear?’
‘Hah! Fantastic!’ He had lost it. I was going to have to call someone. The fog in the bathroom was becoming thicker.
‘What colour is the bottle normally?’
‘I don’t know, darling.’ I couldn’t see what he was getting at.
‘I’ve changed my deodorant!’ His grin was now inane, the glint in his eyes positively insane. All I could think of was how to get him out of the bathroom and away from the razors. My mind began to buzz, my throat was dry from the deodorant powder blocking up the pores, and all I could smell was musky oranges. I couldn’t swallow any more. And then, finally, I caught up.
‘You’ve changed your deodorant!’ My inane grin matched his. ‘Surely that couldn’t be it.’
‘I bet you any money it is. I’m not wearing any from now on.’
I’m probably the only girlfriend I know who would receive that kind of information with delight.
Sure enough, that night Charlie took care to shower again before he went out, he used no deodorant and the otters immediately returned to normal. They dawdled past him as he filmed them while standing in the river. Evidently they recognised is unadulterated smell as belonging to someone who meant no threat. They were probably grateful for his BO, it saved them a lot of time and trouble trekking across paddocks!’

There’s a real lesson here for any enthusiastic wildlife watchers!!

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