British Animal Challenge: April Update

April has been a bit of a mixed month for me in terms of the British Animal Challenge. Still no luck with amphibians (apart from a few tadpoles), despite dreams of giant toads.

The reptiles course I attended will hopefully help me spot lizards and snakes. As late April and early May are meant to be the best times to see reptiles, I had hoped to see some along the 35 miles of South West Coast Path I walked last week. But I didn’t spot a single scale. Maybe the steep hills distracted me.

I did, however, manage to tick one new species off my list: the Exmoor pony. Not the hardest to spot – they’re pretty large compared to most of the species on my list, and not too shy either. But they are limited to a fairly small (and scenic) geographical area.  I’ll write a bit more about them in the next week or so.

So, what are my plans for May? Well, reptiles are top of my list,  trying to put my new knowledge to use. I’m also hoping to do some newt surveying, and maybe have another go at looking for otters and water shrews.

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Bedtime story 1: Why the hippo scatters his dung

This is a bushman story left on my pillow one night while I was staying at the Mweya Safari Lodge in Uganda. Hope you enjoy it!

Are you sitting comfortably? Then I’ll begin…

“This is a story about why Hippo scatters his dung. When the Creator was giving each animal a place in the world, the pair of hippos begged to be allowed to live in the cool water which they loved so dearly.

“The Creator looked at them, and was doubtful about letting them live in the water: their mouths were so large, their teeth so long and sharp, and their size and their appetites so big. He was afraid that they would eat up all the fish. Besides, he had already granted the place to another predator – the crocodile. He couldn’t have two kinds of large, hungry animals living in the rivers. So the Creator refused the hippos’ request, and told them they could live out on the open plains.

“At this news, the two hippos began to weep and wail, making the most awful noise. They pleaded and pleaded with the Creator, who finally gave in. But He made the hippos promise that if they lived in the rivers, they must never harm a single fish. They were to eat grass instead. The hippos promised solemnly, and rushed to the river, grunting with delight. And to this day, hippos always scatter their dung on the river bank, so the Creator can see that it contains no fish bones. And you can still hear them laughing with joy that they were allowed to live in the rivers after all.”

British reptiles

While they’re not everyone’s cup of tea, reptiles are fascinating. They are like miniature dinosaurs, hidden in our woods and heaths. It would be quite easy to go years without seeing one. Last week I attended a training session that will hopefully help me get better at spotting them.

The training was organised by the Surrey Amphibians and Reptiles Group (SARG), designed to introduce people to Britain’s native reptiles, and how to survey them. (Incidentally, if you were surveying reptiles, what would you ask them?)

Britain is home to 3 types of snake (grass snakes, adders and smooth snakes) and 3 lizards (common lizards, slow worms and sand lizards). In addition there are small populations of non-native reptiles including red-eared terrapins and aesculapian snakes in certain parts of the country.

Surveys of reptiles are important for helping to inform land management, and other efforts to protect reptiles.  SARG have an excellent website which allows owners of survey sites to see up-to-date information about where reptiles are on their land.

I have yet to see a reptile in Surrey, but have seen adders and lizards a few times along the South West Coast Path. We’re just coming up to the best time of year to see reptiles. I’m looking forwards to testing my new knowledge, and seeing if I can spot some in the next few weeks.

If you’re interested in reptiles you might like to look at the ARG website, which contains details about local reptiles groups across the country.

April Riversearch

My stretch of the river Mole has again changed in the space of a month. I did my monthly Riversearch check last weekend. The water level is now back to normal, with the stepping stones easily crossable. There are still a few fallen trees lying across the river, and in a couple of places trees have pulled away large chunks from the bank when they fell.
Fallen tree has pulled down a section of river bank
Birds were singing loudly,  and the wood was carpeted with blossom petals.  The air was thick with the smell of wild garlic, although the garlic flowers are not quite in bloom.
I love how the seasons transform familiar places, so each time you visit there is something new.

Badgering pays off at last!

Good news – the government has finally decided to listen to the  evidence and put a stop to plans to roll out the badger cull.
The pilot culls in Somerset and Gloucestershire aimed to see:
  • if culling using free shooting could kill enough badgers 70%) to reduce bovine TB
  • if it was a humane way of killing badgers
  • if it was safe
My previous blog post on the evidence for and against the cull discusses this. Suffice it to say, the pilot culls failed miserably on the first two criteria. It’s only success was that no-one was hurt.
Despite the overwhelming evidence on the failure of the pilot culls, the high costs and widespread public and political opposition to them, it was by no means certain that the government would pull the plug on the idea of rolling them out. The National Farmers Union have continued to push for them. But we now know they won’t be expanded to new areas.
The government have also announced a programme of vaccinating badgers around the edges of areas with high levels of bovine TB.
Badger
It’s not all good news for badgers, though.  Culling of badgers in the pilot cull zones will be allowed to continue, with no monitoring.  This seems bizarre, given the pilots found that closely scrutinised free shooting was inhumane. Unmonitored killing is hardly likely to be more humane. Obviously that no longer matters…
The culls have, from the start, been more about politics than evidence. I have no doubt that the decision not to expand the cull is mainly due to the campaigns against it, rather than whether the cull was likely to reduce bovine TB. Well done to all who campaigned against the cull, and the activists who monitored the cull.

Bird Nerd part 5: Big Garden Birdwatch 2014 results

Last week the RSPB released the results of the 2014 Great British bird watch. Once again house sparrows topped the list, with an average of 3.8 seen per garden.

The survey was carried out by almost half a million volunteers  across the UK. It involved watching a garden or park for an hour during one weekend in January, and recording the maximum number of birds of each species seen at one time.
So how do the results compare to the average number of birds I saw in my garden this January? The table below shows the mean number of birds observed per site in the UK as a whole, Surrey, and my garden. As you can see, the results are pretty similar.
House sparrows also topped my list. Unlike the rest of Surrey and the UK, I didn’t see any goldfinches. Dunnocks did make it onto my list though.
Top 10 bird species seen: Big Garden Birdwatch 2014 and my garden
Top 10 bird species seen: Big Garden Birdwatch 2014 and my garden
But how does this compare to previous years? Compared to last year there has not been a huge amount of change in the average numbers of birds seen for the top 10 species nationally. For my garden, there has been a drop in the number of starlings, and smaller drops in the numbers of several other birds, but that may be down to the mild winter meaning birds don’t need to visit the feeders in my garden as much as last year.
Top 10 birds seen in my garden in January 2013 vs January 2014
Top 10 birds seen in my garden in January 2013 vs January 2014