Sunday 25 August 2019

Bank Voles in the Garden

This year, like last, we have Bank Voles in the garden. They can be spotted in the afternoon and early evening running between the shrubs and flowers and eating my wife's vegetables (no brussel sprouts for Christmas this year--they have nibbled off all the shoots). Fallen plums have been a firm, almost irresistible, favourite.

Bank Voles are very approachable, not diving for cover until the human inhabitants get to within a couple of feet. They run behind chairs and the legs of the occupants. I have seen pet shop advertisements from the 1930s to the 1950s for Bank Voles and they had a reputation for being relatively easy to tame.

Last week Number Two son had his camera nearby and took the still and video shown.

The Bank Voles reach their highest population in late summer, after rounds of breeding from animals that survive winter as well as from the young of the succeeding generations.

The old and long-established scientific name of Clethrionomys glareolus has been replaced in the past fifteen years or so by Myodes glareolus on the grounds, apparently, that Myodes has historical priority—the sort of change for change's sake that really annoys me and demonstrates why the international rules of nomenclature are viewed with a mixture of incredulity and bemusement by experimental biologists. The change was controversial and the paper below gives some idea of the type of argument and evidence employed.

Carleton MD, Gardner AJ, Pavlinov IY, Musser GG. 2014. The valid generic name for red-backed voles (Muroidea: Cricetidae: Arvicolinae): restatement of the case for Myodes Pallas, 1811. Journal of Mammalogy 95, 943-959.

Tuesday 20 August 2019

China in the early decades of the 20th century: Who was Major Pereira?

When researching the Duke of Bedford’s Exploration and the Fenwick-Owen hunting/collecting trip to China a name kept cropping up: Major Pereira.

Thus, when Dr Jack Smith, in his earlier life as a missionary, was one of a party to re-enter Shanxi (Shansi) in 1901 after the massacre of missionaries during the Boxer Rebellion, a member of that party was Major Pereira of the Grenadier Guards ‘in an unofficial capacity’. Smith left a photograph of that group, along with local Chinese officials, which Margaret Johnson used in her privately-published book on Smith. Pereira may have been ‘in an unofficial capacity’ but was in uniform while the missionaries look incongruous in Chinese dress of the time.

Major Pereira with the party of missionaries in 1901. A photograph from the collection of Dr Jack Smith (third right of those standing) used to illustrate the late Mrs Margaret Johnson's book on Smith)

There a several references to Pereira in Harold Frank Wallace’s account of George Fenwick-Owen’s journey—with Smith as interpreter and manager. He turns up during their retreat across the Gobi Desert: ‘Major Pereira arrived from Kashgar’. Earlier in the book, a reference is made to a ‘Major P——‘ who intervened to save the life of a Chinese official known by missionaries to have been innocent during the Boxer Rebellion but held for execution by the German contingent in Peking. Major P is clearly Pereira.

I was intrigued: who was the seemingly ubiquitous Major Pereira?

I soon found the answer. He was George Edward Pereira, born in London on 26 January 1865, the son of Edward Pereira and Margaret Ann, née Stoner. Edward (1817-1872) was born a Portuguese subject in Macau where the family had extensive interests. Edward’s father, António Vicente, a wealthy merchant had moved to London sometime in the middle 1800s.

George Pereira was educated at the Roman Catholic Oratory School, then in Birmingham, along with his brother, Edward. The latter, a priest and first-class cricketer. became headmaster of the school. After Sandhurst, George was commissioned in the Grenadier Guards in 1884. Five months later a hunting accident left him with a permanent limp. His initial ambitions—to see active service and explore thew world—were thus thwarted. However, in 1899 the by-then Captain Pereira was seconded to a new Chinese-manned infantry regiment (1st Chinese Regiment) formed in the recently-acquired treaty port of Weihaiwei. Action came in the form of the Boxer Rebellion in 1900. He was slightly wounded during the fighting at Tientsin and he then took part in the relief of the legations in Peking as the British army fought as a member of the Eight-Nation Alliance. A despatch to London (London Gazette 6 November 1900) reads:

I signalled in to Lieutenant-Colonel Bower, who was in command of the forces left in the Settlement, to send me out two more companies of the Chinese Regiment with all the stretchers he could collect and on their arrival sent the stretchers forward carried by the men of the regiment under Major Pereira. Major Pereira made two trips out to the American position and brought back many of their wounded under very heavy fire, losing several men and being himself wounded.

 ‘In recognition of services during the recent operations in China’ Major Pereira was awarded the Distinguished Service Order (DSO). On 20 November 1900 he was gazetted as ‘Special Service Officer, graded as Deputy-Assistant Adjutant-General, on the Staff of the China Field Force.

Pereira’s appearance as Major P——in Wallace’s book reflects his presence in Peking and the established attitude of the German forces in the Alliance of execute first, ask questions later. It was during his tour during most of 1901 that Jack Smith encountered him as one of the party accompanying the missionaries returning to Shanxi in June-July 1901.

A great deal happened to Pereira between meeting Smith in 1901 and their meeting on the road across the Gobi in February 1911. In May 1902 he rejoined the Grenadier Guards for the final stage of the Boer War in South Africa. In 1903 he went to Korea, being appointed temporary military attaché there in 1904. Then it was on to a job as a military attaché to the Japanese |Army during its campaign in Manchuria in the war between Russia and Japan of 1904-05. There is an article on Wikipedia here on the rôle of foreign military attachés and observers in that war. For his part Pereira was appointed CMG in 1906. From Manchuria, in autumn 1905, he went as military attaché to the legation at Peking with the temporary rank of Lieutenant-Colonel.

It was from Peking that Pereira explored all parts of China in a series of long journeys between 1906 and 1908. He visited units of the Chinese Army. M.J. Pollock, his biographer for the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, wrote:

His tact and understanding and his conversational ability enabled him to make many personal friends among high officials. The knowledge he gained of Chinese people from the soldiers of his Weihaiwei regiment to the highest levels of officialdom was of great value for his later travels. He came back to Europe in 1909, but peacetime soldiering held no attractions and he resigned his commission in July of that year. 

It was then back to China for exploration and shooting, this time as a civilian. Between 1910 and 1912 he covered 11,000 miles—on foot. It was of course, on one of his long journeys in the west of the country, that he met Dr Smith again along with George Fenwick-Owen and Harold Frank Wallace.

The map from Pereira's paper on crossing the Ordos in 1910

Back in U.K. Pereira became a Lieutenant-Colonel in the Reserve of Officers. This reserve was mobilised at the outbreak of war in 1914. From the staff of the 47th London Division, he took command of the 4th Battalion, Royal Welsh Fusiliers, a territorial army unit, in June 1915. Leading them, he was slightly wounded at the Battle of Loos. By this time he was a Brevet Colonel, i.e. an unpaid promotion, achieved by merit, but for the rest of the war he was a temporary Brigadier-General commanding from January 1916 until November 1917 the 47th Brigade of the 16th (Irish) Division through some of the bloodiest battles on the Somme. Companionship of the Bath (CB) was awarded in January 1917.  Then, in 1918, he commanded 43rd Brigade of the 14th (Light) Division during the final advance that ended in the armistice. Pollock noted: ‘He always won the absolute confidence of his troops by his complete disregard for danger’.

George Edward Pereira in 1918
by Walter Stoneman
©National Portrait Gallery
NPG X169940

Pereira retired—again—in 1919 with the honorary rank of Brigadier-General (i.e. the highest rank achieved on a temporary basis). However, Pollock notes, he was part of an ill-advised British mission sent to Siberia to support the White Russians under Admiral Alexander Kolchak. Kolchak was based in Omsk—part of the world with which Pereira was very familiar—and members of the mission crossed Siberia to reach Omsk after landing at Vladivostok.

In 1920 Pereira was back in China to his travels intending if possible to reach Lhasa in Tibet. Only two Europeans, both French missionaries had previously made it to Lhasa from China—in 1846. His journeys through China from 1920 to 1923 were long, hard and dangerous in the era of brigands and war lords; his party came under fire once. An account of his travels, Peking to Lhasa, extracted from Pereira’s detailed diaries and maps, was written up by his friend, Sir Francis Younghusband. I will not go into any detail of these extensive travels but the map below I have adapted from that in in the book shows the ground he covered, mostly on foot, sometimes in the Chinese version of a sedan chair, sometimes by mule or cart and occasionally by rail or river boat. I will, however, point out he did indeed reach Lhasa.

I have coloured red the routes taken by Pereira on this three journeys in China in 1921-23

Pereira was a natural observer and commentator on the human scene and geography of China. Biologically, his travels were less interesting. However, he did spend four months on mountain treks around Muping in Sichuan. He was hoping to shoot a Giant Panda but, not surprisingly given the nature of their habitat, failed. He did shoot a Red Panda and that found its way to the Natural History Museum.

These are extracts from the book about his hunt for a Giant Panda (note the use of the word pandar in the early decades of the 20th Century by British and American authors):

Having established himself in the valley of the T’ung-ch’ang Ho, a fierce mountain torrent, Pereira set out on July 30 on a five days’ trip to try and get a giant pandar. He limited his transport to four coolies. His baggage consisted of the outer fly of his tent to serve as a tente d’abri, a waterproof sheet, a Gladstone bag, wash-basin, rifle, camera, water-bottle and some food. And he was accompanied by his cook and two or three hunters who, as well as the coolies, bore various weapons ranging from a Mauser rifle to flint-locks, and what resembled a cross between a carbine and a pistol flint-lock. He travelled south-west up the Tung-tzuchi valley between high hills. 
The next day he climbed the Ta-pan-au (8640 feet) to the N.N.E. in a vain search for pandar. Though not very steep, after the first mile the going was tedious. He had to force his way through bamboo scrub from 2 to 4 feet high. The hill-side was dense with trees whose branches were often too high to step over and too low to get under. Creepers would catch him round the leg. Branches which looked substantial would give way. Also the ground was very slippery. In such a country there was hardly a chance even of seeing a pandar. And for the small hunting dogs to drive one to him, even if they found one, could not be expected. A pandar might easily pass within 10 yards without being seen. Naturally, therefore, Pereira’s search was fruitless.
On August 6 he set off westward, and after a very stiff climb crossed the Weng-ting Ta Pass (10,170 feet), from which he had grand views down the valley he had been ascending. Then he had a long descent for over 4 miles, constantly crossing a dashing hill torrent. At the end of the march he put up with Father Liu-P’ei, a Chinese Catholic priest, in a charming mission house situated on the hill-side, 600 feet above the valley and with a court inside filled with beautiful flowers. Here Pereira was laid up for fifty-three days with a blistered foot, due to his walking in sandals. And his stay was not rendered any the pleasanter by the weather, for it rained nearly every day in September.

Things started to go wrong for Pereira. Infected blisters and frostbite from walking in the snow in sandals (his boots made passage through streams and on slippery rocks difficult) were the first signs that he was breaking down physically. He had to be carried down one mountain on the back of one of his coolies. The trek over high-altitude passes (14-17 thousand feet) on the way to Lhasa cannot have helped. He arrived in Lhasa completely exhausted with what is described as thrombosis in his left leg. After meeting the thirteenth Dalai Lama he headed south for India and the railway at Darjeeling. On reaching Calcutta he had to spend time in a nursing home for treatment to his leg. But then he was off on his travels again, reaching Yunnan from Burma. He visited tribal areas and then took passage on a steamer down the Yangtse to Shanghai.

After a couple of weeks spent in Hong Kong he travelled to Haiphong in Indo-China and then inland to Yunnan-Fu, now known as Kunming. From there and for this, his final, journey he had a companion, Dr H. Gordon Thompson, a medical missionary. Between Batang and Kantze (Garzê, Gānzī, Kandze) Pereira was taken ill, eating little and deteriorating. Thompson gave an account of this journey to the Royal Geographical Society. Here is his account of Pereira’s death from what Thompson diagnosed as a perforated gastric ulcer on 20 October 1923, aged 58:

At 12.5 I was with the muleteers accompanying the first lot of nine yaks when I was told that Pereira was on the ground. I turned back and found that he had had to get off his pony owing to a sudden attack of severe pain. We were only 3¾ miles from Kantse, so I gave orders for the caravan to go on and get across the river Yalung, while the Tibetan boy remained with us. The General was very collapsed, but after fifty minutes he seemed easier, and insisted on going on. With difficulty we got him on to a pony and made our way slowly down to the river. We crossed by the coracle ferry, and then, after fixing up his camp bed and lashing the tent poles on to the sides for carrying, he rested comfortably. The pain became less, and we tried to get passing Tibetans to act as bearers up to the town, only 1¾ miles away. It was of no use—not even our Washi yak-drivers, who had been with us from Batang, would help to carry a sick man. As time was getting on and it would soon be dark, I sent the Tibetan boy on ahead to find a house for us to stay, and then, as the General thought he could manage on the pony, we lifted him into the saddle and slowly made our way into the town. At 5.20 we arrived at our destination. His bed was soon ready, and in a few minutes we had him snug with hot-water bottles and every comfort that we could give him; but he was very weak. At a quarter to nine he asked for the light to be put out and he would try to sleep. After thanking me for all my trouble he dozed a little and wandered in his sleep, sometimes talking in Chinese, sometimes in English. At 1 a.m. I helped him to turn on to his side, and he talked to me quite rationally; but after a few minutes there was a sudden change, he became unconscious, and ten minutes later he passed away peacefully in my arms. So died a brave soldier, a remarkable traveller, and a devout Christian.
The Tibetans dispose of their dead either by throwing the body into the river or by putting it out to be eaten by vultures ; but the Chinese traders in Kantse had a small plot of ground which they used as a cemetery. The Chinese official offered me a site for a grave, and so I laid him to rest there, under the shadow of the Great Kantse Lamasery and within sight of the great snow-range forming the Ho chu lung divide. Sixteen Tibetans carried the coffin to the grave.
After Pereira’s death I decided to continue the journey as we had planned it…

As far as Thompson is concerned he did continue the journey along the borders of China. He was, however, captured by brigands and held for eight days until assisted to escape by a Chinese official.

Pereira’s body did not lie in Kantze for long; it was removed to lie in the consecrated ground of the Roman Catholic church and mission at Tatsienlu* (Kangding). According to the entry for the city in Wikipedia, the church was destroyed in the Cultural Revolution, was rebuilt in the 1980s but being disused has been turned into a shopping centre and hotel. I have no information on what has happened to Pereira’s grave.

The entry in the overseas register of Pereira's death

In his will Pereira left £32,487, the equivalent of between £1.6m and £3m in today’s money. His executor was his brother, Major General Sir Cecil Edward Pereira (1869-1942), whose military career followed a more conventional course. George Pereira appeared to have no permanent base in Britain. His address, for probate, was given as ‘The Guards Club, Brook Street’.

Pereira’s original material lives on: some of his travels were published in the Geographical Journal; his diaries and photographs are held by the Royal Geographical Society; the Chinese weaponry he collected is in the Horniman Museum; proper versions of the maps he made were prepared by the War Office (now in the British Library) including those made after he retired from the army for the second time. He made numerous visits to Chinese army units and there seems little doubt that he continued to supply intelligence material to London up to the time of his death.

His other interest was horse racing. Indeed he was intending to return to Britain in time for the 1924 Derby.

M.J. Pollock summed up George Pereira as follows:

Pereira was 5 feet 9 inches tall, lame, and not physically strong. He had, however, great energy, a genius for leadership, and an absolute determination to carry out his plans combined with an indifference to danger, discomfort, and fatigue. He was ready to talk about his journeys but in a purely impersonal manner. Although he had a very proper sense of self-respect, and was not a man to be trifled with, he had great charm and was modest with an innate courtesy and a dry sense of humour. 'It is lucky therefore that the brigands are so utterly ignorant of brigandage as a fine art'. His experiences of brigands he described as 'a regular Gilbert and Sullivan opera'. He spoke Mandarin Chinese and had some knowledge of dialects which made him independent of interpreters for all but Tibetan conversations. He was deeply religious and a devout Catholic, but with a broad sympathy for people of all kinds. Army life coupled with a restless spirit made him disinclined to a settled life and he never married though he remained devoted to his family. 


This is the second British military attaché to Peking I have written about since starting this blog, the other being Valentine Burkhardt (1884-1967). Both were China specialists; both were interested also in natural history.

It also happens that I have been to both Yunnan and Sichuan so the sort of country described by Pereira is very familiar. However, the change in the last couple of decades has been so rapid that it is difficult to conceive when travelling along a modern highway with its massive engineering work, or ascending a mountain in a ski-lift, of the conditions in the towns and villages, of the state of virtual civil war or of the difficulties of getting from A to B, that prevailed less than a century ago, indeed only twenty years before I was born.


†The Guards’ Club was in Pall Mall not Brook Street.

*Previously referred to in this blog as the site of collection of the type specimen of the Chinese Mountain Cat, Felis bieti.

Johnson M. 2011. The life and travels of Dr JAC Smith 1873-1929. Published privately by the author.

Pereira G. 1911. A journey across the Ordos. Geographical Journal 37, 260-264.

Pollock MJ. 2004. Pereira, George Edward (1865-1923). Oxford Dictionary of National Biography.

Thompson, H.G. 1926. From Yunnan-Fu to Peking along the Tibetan and Mongolian borders, including the last journey of Brig.-Gen. George E. Pereira. Geographical Journal 67, 2-23.

Wallace HF, 1913. The Big Game of Central and Western China. Being an Account of a Journey from Shanghai to London Overland Across the Gobi Desert. London: John Murray

Younghusband F. 1925. Peking to Lhasa. The narrative of journeys in the Chinese Empire made by the late Brigadier-General George Pereira, C.B., C.M.G., D.S.O., compiled by Sir Francis Younghusband, K.C.S.I., K.C.I.E., from notes and diaries supplied by Major-General Sir Cecil Pereira, K.C.B., C.M.G. London: Constable.

Tuesday 6 August 2019

Salt glands and Sea Water: Duck Farming in 1960s Hong Kong and a Giant Petrel in Argentina

Salt-glands enable many birds to drink saline waters and eat salt-rich invertebrate foods. A question that arises is the extent to which the salt gland is used in birds that can fly or swim to a source of fresh water to drink. Do they just stay in salt water and get rid of the salt through the salt glands, or do they, if possible, go to fresh water to drink? Salt glands—just like man-made desalination plants—need a great deal of energy to run, so one might predict that birds with salt glands would, if they could, drink fresh water. There could be a trade-off, of course, between using energy to fly or swim to fresh water and using energy to stay put with the salt glands working.

Several weeks ago I wrote about an article by V.C. Wynne-Edwards in a magazine of the 1930s—before the discovery of salt glands in the 1950s. He had found that gulls do not, in general, stray too far from a source of fresh water and suggested that they only drink there.

The first actual observation I heard of was in Hong Kong in the 1960s. Domestic ducks and geese have salt glands and given salty water to drink can switch them on in a matter of minutes. They cannot, however, unlike truly marine birds, survive on full-strength sea water for any length of time.The late John Phillips (1933-87) was appointed Professor of Zoology at the University of Kong Kong in 1962 at the age of 29 . He had previously worked on salt glands for a while and soon after his arrival in Hong Kong had been driving through the New Territories when he saw a large flock of domestic ducks dabbling for food on salt flats near Yuen Long. He thought the salt glands must have been well and truly working in those birds. That may indeed have been the case, temporarily at least, since although mechanical arrangements in the beak can reduce the ingestion of water along with food, the ducks must have been taking in some water nearly as salty as sea water. However, as he continued watching the farmer appeared and herded the ducks back to his land. The ducks ran onto the farm and headed straight for a container of fresh water which they drank avidly.

I had been planning to write this article but lacked a photograph of a flock of domestic ducks in Hong Kong. Then Rob Taylor posted this photograph in a Facebook Group on Hong Kong in the 1960s; I show it here with his approval. The ducks appear to be sitting on the bank of a gei wai—an artificial salt water pond filled by the waters of the Pearl River estuary and used for rearing salt-water shrimps.

Domestic ducks- New Territories, Hong Kong.
Photograph from Rob Taylor's family collection

I saw something similar in in a very different setting with a very different species. New to the birds of the southern ocean, I was keeping my eye on a Southern Giant Petrel (Macronectes giganteus) as we walked along the shore in Ushuaia in southern Argentina. The wind was icy and as I pulled a scarf around my mouth—I had raging toothache—I noticed the petrel moving close inshore. It made for a drain from which fresh water after a heavy shower was flowing into the sea. The bird had a long drink from the drain and headed paddled off to sea. 

Thus in both the domestic ducks and the petrel, fresh water would have diluted any excess salt in the body and enabled excretion of dilute urine through the kidneys rather than concentrated salt from the salt glands.

These observations on birds drinking fresh water in preference to salt water accord with experiments that have been done. Most birds tested—even a number that have salt glands—prefer fresh water to salt water when offered a choice. A possible exception is an albatross that is truly oceanic.