Fascinating wildlife fact #3: Venomous water shrews

Water shrews have venomous saliva. Apart from the adder, they are the only venomous British animal.

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Big Garden Birdwatch 2014

It’s the last weekend in January, which means it’s time once again for the RSPB Big Garden Birdwatch. I’m doing my hour of observation as I type, (lunchtime on Sunday) and conditions aren’t promising. It’s tipping down with rain, and blustery with it, so I don’t expect to see many birds. I put out food first thing this morning, but had to refresh supplies before I started counting as most of it had already gone.

Last year more than half a million people took part across the UK. The data generated by this annual event helps us keep track of how garden birds are doing across the UK. Headline findings from last year’s event included the continuing decline of starlings and house sparrows, both of which are ‘red listed’, which means they are of highest conservation concern. We have to hope that this year will see better results for them. On a more positive note, sightings of siskins, fieldfares and jays increased last year compared to 2012.

So, what I have seen in my garden over the last, blustery hour? No big surprises.

  • 5 house sparrows
  • 2 starlings
  • 1 dunnock
  • 2 blackbirds
  • 2 collared doves
  • 2 woodpigeons

I think if the weather had been kinder I would have expected to see a robin and a bluetit or two, based on my ‘bird nerd’ sightings over the last couple of weeks. But who can blame the birds for finding somewhere sheltered to keep out of the rain. Now I’ve finished my hour I think it’s time to light the fire and settle in for the afternoon!

Dangers of sentimentality

It’s easy to ascribe human characteristics or behaviours to wild creatures. It helps us to relate to them. Books that anthropomophicise wild animals, like the wonderful Wind in the Willows, can also kindle an interest in nature that may lead on to a life-long love. I put the start of my own interest in nature down, at least in part, to Kenneth Graham and Colin Dann. Patrick Barkham, in Badgerlands, attributes a change in attitudes to badgers in large part to the gruff, unsociable but dependable Mr Badger of Wind in the Willows.

I have to admit getting sentimental about wildlife, particularly creatures I see every day, and give names to. It’s hard to resist talking down to the dormice we find during our box checks. Their cuteness sometimes leads me to forget that they are wild creatures, adapted to the life they lead and part of a whole ecosystem that has evolved together. Anthropomorphicising wild creatures can blind us to a deeper understanding of wildlife, and the forces that drive their behaviour.

Programmes like Springwatch get us rooting for individuals. Will the chicks survive to fledge? Watching the process happen in our own nest box was even more engaging. But it’s easy to forget that everything in nature is connected. A sparrowhawk catching one of ‘your’ garden birds is a mini tragedy, unless you are the sparrowhawk or its chicks.

This may make me sound heartless, but part of what I love in nature is the way it all fits together. I like that nature is red in tooth and claw. I like watching the daily battle for survival between predator and prey. Sometimes I pick a side (often the predator, I’m afraid – I don’t know what that says about me).

But I don’t think this means there’s never a case for intervention. In fact, humans have already intervened so much in the ecosystem (eg. introducing non-native invasive species like mink; destroying habitat) that if we are to protect our native wildlife further intervention is needed. And not all human interventions of the past have been negative – some wild creatures have thrived in carefully managed (rather than neglected) woodlands, or would cease to exist if chalk meadows were allowed to return to scrub.

A purely sentimental love for wildlife also prevents us from communicating effectively with policymakers and others who aren’t interested in nature for nature’s sake. We need to be able to engage with them in a language they understand (economics and hard facts) if we are to adequately defend our wildlife.

Sentimentality is great for getting people to care for our wildlife, but to protect it we need to move beyond that to something based on understanding as well as emotion.

Having said that, even the most hardened naturalist deserves the odd “that’s so cute” moment…

Going bats?

They’re not the most popular of Britain’s wildlife. I know many people, who, while keen on wildlife in general, quail at the thought of bats. It’s hard to see why they inspire such fear. None of the species native to Britain would cause humans any harm (preferring insects instead). And most bats are happily hibernating by the time halloween comes around, with tacky bat images everywhere.

Having said that, they are quite mysterious – nocturnal mammals with crazy flight patterns, only glimpsed as silhouettes against the night sky. And some look downright weird (take horseshoe bats as an example…)

Britain is home to 16 different species of bat, and given their nocturnal nature I’m going to need some help finding them (and working out which species they are). While many mammals can be distinguished with a good look, telling the difference between bats usually requires specialist equipment to record or transpose their distinctive calls.

I have seen bats before. They nest in the eaves of my parents house, and I’ve seen them flapping around our house as well. One memorable holiday with friends we stayed in a 15th century manor house, and at dusk each day long-eared bats would fly round inside the Great Hall before heading off to feed. This was a bit of a surprise the first time it happened, but it was fantastic to get a view of them in good light. A different species of bat inhabited the outbuildings as well, so we could see them roosting upside down. But despite these close encounters, I don’t know which species I have seen. It will be interesting to find out.

Bat

While some species of British animal will require lots of travel, it turns out I’m ideally placed for bat spotting. Surrey is home to 14 bat species, so, with the help of people who know what they’re doing, hopefully I should be able to see most without having to travel too far.  Luckily, Surrey Wildlife Trust and other conservation groups organise bat walks led by experts with detectors, so this seems like a good way to start.

Making the most of the floods: gathering data to help prevent future flooding & pollution

If you live in the UK you’ll have noticed the storms over the last few weeks. The humble River Mole even made it onto the national news on Christmas eve as homes and businesses were flooded, and people left without power for days. The flooding is not just a human tragedy. Heavy rains, winds and floods increase pollution, and rising water levels can be fatal for riverside dwellers. That’s why, on the 5th January, in the rain, I donned my wellies and high vis jacket, and headed out along the river.

I’m one of Surrey Wildlife Trust’s volunteer river wardens, as part of RiverSearch. The scheme is a great idea – volunteers are allocated a stretch of river, and regularly monitor it for pollution, non-native invasive species and species like otters.

I’m ashamed to admit that since I did my training last autumn, I’d yet to do my first real survey. So when the email came from the coordinator, urging us to get out along rivers looking for pollution and flooding, I knew I had to act. I wouldn’t normally choose a rainy January afternoon for a stroll, nor a route along a river that has recently flooded. But those conditions do provide an excellent opportunity to spot where rivers are getting polluted from run-off from farmland or roads, and other sources of pollution.

Urban point source pollutionWater levels have receded on Pipp BrookSo off I set, armed with a camera, clipboard, gps and intrepid stick, and kindly accompanied by Dr C. In all, we covered just under 5 miles, although not all of that was along the river. Along Pipp Brook there were lots of places where urban run-off was entering the stream. The water level in the mill stream had fallen a couple of feet from the previous afternoon, but it was still much higher than normal. There were also lots of plastic bags and other debris stranded on overhanging branches, washed there by the high water or blown by the wind.

Spot the stepping stones?Out of town, by the Mole, the water level had receded a lot since Christmas, but was still flooding the bankside field and woods. There was no sign of the Stepping Stones at the foot of Box Hill.

The River Mole bursting its banksThe water was a murky brown from the washed-in mud, and visibility in the river must be close to zero. I felt sorry for the kingfisher I glimpsed zooming past, as hunting must be difficult in these conditions. Water voles can also be badly affected by flooding, as their bankside burrows can get flooded with the rising water. The additional nutrients washed into rivers are bad news for fish (and those creatures that depend on fish), as it can deplete oxygen levels in the water.

Hopefully the data gathered by the volunteer River Wardens can help to identify ways to reduce pollution and flooding along Surrey’s rivers for the future. And hopefully the weather will improve quickly to give all those (human and animal) who live by rivers and the sea a chance to recover.

British animal challenge: insectivores

Having set myself the challenge, I now need to work out how to see every species of British animal in the wild. This post is the first of a series I have planned, looking at how to see the different groups of animals, starting with insectivores.

As the name suggest, the 7 species in this group (hedgehog, mole, common shrew, water shrew, greater and lesser white toothed shrews, and the pygmy shrew) are insect eaters. I like to think of  them as the Wombles group. They all have, long, pointed, sensitive, mobile noses to help them find food, just like the recycling residents of Wimbledon Common. Apart from the spiky hedgehog, they all have short, dense, velvety fur, which, at least in the case of the mole, can lie flat in any direction to help them move backwards and forwards through tunnels.

Hedgehog and hoglets
Hedgehog and hoglets

Regular readers to this blog will know that hedgehogs are already ticked off my list, as they are regular visitors to our garden. I’ve also seen pygmy shrews foraging in dormouse boxes (although I haven’t got any photos of them yet). So that leaves the other 5 species to find.

This challenge is still new to me, so I haven’t quite worked out the rules. I have seen a wild mole, but sadly it was dead. Does that count? Similarly, I’ve seen dead common shrews. It will be much more satisfying to see them alive, so they stay on my list of species to find.

This may be quite tricky. Moles are one of the most common British animals, but, as you know, they live underground, and don’t come up to the surface often. The internet’s not much help on this – a quick search for moles in the UK brings up a long list of exterminators, but not much useful advice for watching them. I’ve seen plenty of evidence of moles, but no snouts pointing out of molehills. It’s not really the sort of animal you can ‘plan’ to see. The best time to look may be in June or July, when the young moles are dispersing above ground to new territories. I’m just going to have to keep an eye out in places with signs of mole activity, wait and hope for a lot of luck…

Common shrews live up to their name: there are estimated to be around 41.7 million in Britain. Despite this they may still be difficult to spot. Like all shrews, they need to keep active nearly 24 hours a day all year, as they need to eat at least 80-90% of their own body weight in food each day. Apparently listening out for their high-pitched squeaks can help you spot one, but again it will involve making sure I spend lots of time paying attention in the right sort of habitat.

Water shrews, while rarer than common shrews, may be easier to spot. The key is finding a nice stretch of unpolluted chalk stream, with lots of bugs for the shrew to eat. Watercress beds are another good place to look. This may call for a trip to the watercress beds of Hampshire, as although the River Mole goes through the chalky north downs, it’s pretty polluted.

The greater and lesser white toothed shrews are going to require travel a little further afield. The greater can be found on some of the Channel Islands, and the lesser is found on the Scilly Isles (some call it the Scilly shrew). I’ve never been to the Channel Islands before, but this seems like a good excuse. Going to the Scillies will be no hardship, since it’s my favourite place on earth.

Now I just need to find time to do all this… It’s starting to look like it could be a full-time job, if only I could find someone to pay me to do this!

Do you have any suggestions of good places to look for water shrews?

RSPB Big Garden Birdwatch 2014

It’s that time of year again! The RSPB garden bird survey takes place on 25th-26th January. Last year more than half a million people took part, providing important data on how our garden birds are doing.

The Garden Smallholder

This will be my 4th year taking part in the RSPB Big Garden Birdwatch. Identify and count the number of wild birds visiting your garden for just 1 hour during 25th – 26th January (pick a day that suits you), it’s so easy to do and gives you an hour of relaxation. What if I don’t have a garden? Don’t worry, you can still take part by doing the count in your local park or green space.

RSPB Big Garden Birdwatch poster

Register to take part before the event and apply for your free bird identification chart to help you with your count. Visit https://www.rspb.org.uk/birdwatch/home

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My challenge for 2014

Torpid dormouseIt’s that time of year, when, snugly indoors we make plans for the next 12 months. I’ve decided to set myself a big challenge. I want to see (and try to photograph) every species of British animal in the wild.

FrogNo doubt it will take me more than a year (if I ever achieve it). I’ve already seen quite a few, but there are many on the list that will be quite tough. My chances of seeing a Scottish wildcat are slim, as they’re so rare and secretive. Others will be found in even less accessible places, for example the 18 different species of dolphins and whales that visit the British coast.Hedgehog

So why set myself this challenge? Well, it seems a good way of getting to find out more about the wonderful wildlife of the British Isles. I’ll need to read up about them to learn where and when to see them. It will also push me beyond my comfort zone, making me visit parts of the country I’ve never been (in my mind Bristol is up north). Finally, it involves a list, and I do like ticking things off lists!Badger

As for the mechanics of it, to start with I’m basing my list on animals included in the Collins Complete Guide to British Animals, although no doubt there will be some additions or subtractions along the way. That includes mammals, reptiles and amphibians. I’m leaving birds out of it for now, as that would just be too big a challenge. You can see the list on a new page I’ve created. I’ll let you know how I’m doing as the year goes on, and share some of the things I learn along the way.Inquisitive seal

Wish me luck! Have you set yourself any wildlife-related challenges for the new year?