British Animal Challenge: look back at 2014

At the start of 2014 I began a huge challenge: trying to see every different type of British animal in the wild. The list has changed a little bit over the year, but here’s the latest version. It includes mammals, amphibians and reptiles. In all, there are 107 species.

I’d seen a reasonable number before I started the challenge, but many of the ones remaining are, for one reason or another, tricky. Some are very rare, some restricted to small parts of the UK (including tiny islands), and others are hard to see because they’re nocturnal, or live at sea.

So, what progress have I made this year? I’ve visited different corners of Devon, Dorset, Hampshire, Cornwall and Surrey on my quest, and spent quite a few hours trying to see some of our elusive animals.

New species seen:

And species I haven’t seen, despite several attempts:

In all, I’ve seen 45 species, and still have 62 to go. It’s going to be a busy year next year!

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Top posts from 2014

As the year draws to a close, it’s a good chance to look back over what’s happened. I’ve been going through the stats to see which posts have had the most views (per month) in 2014. Here are the top 10:

10) 10 more Christmas present ideas for wildlife enthusiasts: It seems lots of people are looking for inspiration for Christmas presents. I just hope Dr C is among them!

9) Looking for harvest mice at an airport: my (ultimately unsuccessful) attempts to see micromys minutus in the unusual setting of Gatwick Airport.

8) Fascinating wildlife fact #11: sharks don’t have bones: a short but interesting glimpse into the anatomy of sharks.

7) On the trail of wild beavers: an account of an expedition to find traces of the first beavers living wild in the UK for hundred of years, and the campaign to keep them that way.

6) Hope for the River Otter beavers: An update on the saga of whether the beavers who were discovered living wild on the River Otter will be allowed to stay free, or rehomed to a zoo. No doubt there will be more posts about this topic next year, as there’s still no definite plans.

5) Kingfishers: Another post from the River Otter (3 in the top 10!). This time it’s some of my better attempts at photographing kingfishers. Still room for improvement, but I’m getting better at it!

4) How to tell who’s been nibbling your nuts: This post outlines how to tell the difference between a nut nibbled by a squirrel, woodmouse, bank vole or dormouse. It contains close up photos to help with identification.

3) Dormouse license! I’ve finally received my dormouse license. This post reflects on what this means, and  the journey to get this far…

2) 5 more recent posts that have made me think: This post links to 5 posts by other bloggers that have made me think. It includes reintroduction of large carnivores in the UK, the hunting act, hedgehogs, flooding, and Christian’s relationship with nature.

1) Plan to cull badger cubs shows the cull’s not about bovine TB: Like the River Otter beavers, the badger cull has been a saga with many twists and turns. This post discusses the recent announcement that the timing of the culls next year will be moved forward to when cubs are first emerging from the sets.

 

Dormouse license!

After four years of volunteering at box checks, scrambling over and under fallen trees, battling holly and brambles, and being stung by nettles and bees, I now have my dormouse license! Dormice are a protected species in the UK (as there are so few of them), so to do anything that may disturb them you need a license from Natural England. To get the license you need to prove that you are capable of handling dormice safely, and have considerable experience of doing so under the supervision of license holders.

When I started volunteering at box checks I didn’t really have ambitions to be a license holder – it was just a pleasant way of spending a Saturday morning, and seeing adorable little animals. But I kinda got hooked, and Surrey Dormouse Group supported to pursue my interest further. At the time they were running an excellent training scheme, having clear requirements for what I needed to have experience of before putting in for my license. This included courses of dormice ecology, surveying and handling. I needed to know how to do a nut hunt, maintain nest boxes (a bit of DIY), set up a new site, record data, use a map to find boxes, give directions to volunteers, deal with other box occupants (like woodmice, birds, bees and shrews), and of course handle dormice at all stages of development.

Hazel dormouse

By Björn Schulz (= User Bjoernschulz on de.wikipedia) (selbst fotografiert von Björn Schulz) [GFDL, CC-BY-SA-3.0 or CC BY-SA 2.5-2.0-1.0], via Wikimedia Commons

It’s taken me a while to build up the necessary experience (mainly because the sites I usually volunteer at don’t have many dormice). As part of my training I’ve had the privilege of learning from many experienced license holders, as well as other volunteers with wide-ranging knowledge of nature.

Torpid dormouse
Dormouse found during regular monitoring by Surrey Dormouse Group

I’ve been on checks where it’s so cold my fingers have got too numb to undo the wire catches to the boxes, and others in the steaming heat of summer. I’ve had a few war wounds (bee stings, nettle stings, and been bitten by a dormouse – quite a rare occurance) and tripped over once or twice. I’ve seen many bluetit nests with chicks, and dormice from tiny pinkies to obese adults ready for hibernation. I’ve also witnessed a few tragedies – the dormouse who shed its tail (like lizards they can do that if they’re stressed), and nests of dead chicks or dormice. But overall the experience has been a joy –  even if we don’t find any dormice on a check, it’s a pleasant way of spending the morning. And having a torpid dormouse snuggle up to your thumb is just adorable…

So, now I’ve got my license, what does that mean? Sadly it doesn’t allow me to hibernate all winter (my employer would have something to say about that…). It does mean I can lead box checks. I’m hoping to get a site of my own to run next year, but if not I will help out when other site leaders in Surrey Dormouse Group can’t do a monthly check. It’s a big responsibility, looking after the wellbeing of those lovely little mice, but I think it will be rewarding.

 

Related posts

Kingfishers

When not looking for signs of beavers along the river Otter, I spent a large portion of my week in Devon looking for kingfishers. We saw kingfishers on every stroll we took along the river. Last year I didn’t manage any decent photos. This year, with the help of a tripod and some patience, I did a little better.

Kingfisher on the river Otter

The stretch of river Otter we stayed near is good kingfisher territory. There are lots of branches overhanging the river, providing handy perches for hunting from. And the bank is good for nesting – lots of suitable holes in the sheer rock. I would love to come back in spring, when the birds are busy feeding chicks.

Kingfisher nest holes in the bank of the River Otter
Kingfisher nest holes in the bank of the River Otter

Kingfisher divingKingfisher on branch Kingfisher Kingfisher flying

They’re still not brilliant images – I didn’t manage to get close enough for the shots I wanted.  And the low winter light meant I had to crank the ISOs up, which means the images are quite noisy (or soft, where I’ve used Photoshop to take out the noise). But I’m pleased to have made some progress.

My quest for the perfect kingfisher photo continues. That gives me another excuse for a holiday in Devon in spring!

On the trail of wild beavers

Reports of beaver sightings on the River Otter
Reports of beaver sightings on the River Otter

Last week I returned to the River Otter. When I was there a year ago, I didn’t believe a sign naming beavers as one of the species seen on the river. I knew beavers had been extinct in the UK for hundreds of years. But soon after my trip, video footage of a family of beavers was released, showing not only were a few beavers roaming free, they were also breeding.

So, curiosity (and a love of a good woodburner in winter) made me return to the River Otter. This time I was hopeful of seeing signs of beavers, if not the animals themselves. Our first walk along the river to the sea showed no indication of beavers to our inexpert eyes (although we did see plenty of birds).

The River Otter in winter
The River Otter in winter

Undeterred, we set out to walk 10km upstream. We were looking out for beaver-gnawed trees, or perhaps signs of dam building or a lodge. The first felled tree we came across wasn’t promising, unless beavers had bigger teeth than I thought. But soon we came across more convincing evidence: lots of tree stumps with chisel-like teeth marks.

Beaver chiselled trees
Beaver chiselled trees
New growth from beaver-coppiced willows on the River Otter
New growth from beaver-coppiced willows on the River Otter

Most of the stumps were from young trees, only a few inches across. But on the opposite bank there were signs of more ambitious beaver work.

Beavers have been working on a larger tree
More ambitious beaver activities

I was thrilled to see these signs – it was only seeing them for myself that made it sink in – beavers really are back in the wild in the UK.

We didn’t manage to spot any obvious lodges or dams (although there were a few heaps of woody debris in the river that could have been, with a bit of imagination). If I had been cleverer I would have read up about beavers before heading to Devon. I had to wait until getting home before learning that Eurasian beavers tend to prefer holes in the river bank, rather than lodges, and only build dams if the river is suboptimal for them.

Sign asking people to report any beaver trapping activity by DEFRA
Sign asking people to report any beaver trapping activity by DEFRA

You’ve probably heard that the future of the wild beavers is in the balance at the moment, with DEFRA planning to remove them to test them for tapeworms. From what we saw, people who live near the river are very supportive of the beavers. They have organised patrols to keep an eye out for beaver trappers, and there were notices placed along the river asking people to report any signs of DEFRA activity. We even had a few people ask us what we were up to (making sure we weren’t beaver stealers…).

I was particularly taken with this demonstration of support, in the window of a shop in Ottery St Mary.

Local shop displays support for the Devon beavers
Local shop displays support for the Devon beavers

Devon Wildlife Trust have applied for a license to allow the beavers to be released back into the river, following testing, and monitored for 5 years. They need to raise £54,000 by the end of the year to show they can do this. If you’d like to contribute, go to the Devon beavers appeal website.

Plan to cull badger cubs shows the cull’s not about bovine TB

The Guardian reported this afternoon that next year’s badger cull will start earlier, in June or July, when badger cubs will be young and inexperienced. This means they will be easier to trap and kill than cubs later in the year. This will help the cullers achieve their target numbers of badgers killed, but will not help them reduce bovine TB.

For badger culling to reduce the incidence of bovine TB in cows, the scientific evidence shows that a large proportion of badgers need to be killed. So far, the cullers have missed their targets. On the face of it, starting earlier in the year, when cubs are easier to kill, may help them. But in reality it’s likely to have little impact on the spread of the disease for two reasons:

  1. Many cubs die in their first year anyway, so shooting them will have less effect on the badger population than killing the same number of older badgers.
  2. Cubs are less likely to be infected with TB than adults, so aren’t the badgers that are most likely to spread the disease to cattle.

This provides further evidence that the cull is not really about reducing bovine TB – at best it’s about looking like they’re trying to reduce bovine TB. I realise this makes me sound like one of the crazy conspiracy theorists that abound on the internet. But, as discussed in previous posts (The badger cull: an ‘evidence to policy’ perspective; Badgering pays off at last) the cull so far has shown no signs of meeting the conditions necessary to have an impact on the disease. To carry on with it in the face of evidence from the government’s own advisory panel saying it’s neither effective nor humane, hints at the politics behind the cull. To then introduce further measures that are likely to increase the numbers of badgers culled without reducing transmission is a very cynical ploy.

Bovine TB is a big problem. But it doesn’t justify an expensive, ineffective, inhumane cull that has already cost the tax payer millions, and has little chance of making a difference. The government and National Farmers Union need to look at other ways to tackle the problem, rather than ignore or distort the scientific evidence.

5 more recent posts that have made me think

  1. The Dreams and Realities of Large Carnivore Reintroductions in the UK: this post by Rewilding the UK explores the possibilities of reintroducing a large carnivore into the UK, and concludes that lynx are the most likely large predator to be able to live sustainably in the UK, without too much conflict with people. I love the idea of lynx returning to the wild here…
  2. 10 Years on, How Effective has the Hunting Act Been? More than just badgers explores the effectiveness of the Hunting Act, and suggests ways in which the legislation could be improved to reduce loopholes and protect our wildlife from cruelty. This is a timely piece, given the public commitment from some Tories to repeal the Act if they get elected.
  3. Wildlife Aid releases ‘Saving Harry’: the Wildlife Aid Foundation have released a beautiful animation and song to draw attention to the plight of hedgehogs in the UK. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=i0XKKpVUgTM
  4. Somerset Levels Update: Reflections on Flooding: A New Nature Blog summarises a report by the RSPB into last winter’s horrific flooding on the Somerset Levels, looking into what caused the floods (apart from lots of rain!), and how they could be prevented in the future.
  5. “This World is Not My Home” and Other T-shirts I Can’t Wear Anymore: Such Small Hands reflects on Christians’ relationship with the world, and the view that what happens in the world doesn’t really matter, as our home is in heaven. She disputes this view, concluding powerfully: “I believe we have a responsibility to work for justice and restoration in the world precisely because this world IS our home and because the Creator has given it value.” I find this post really thought-provoking, as sometimes I fall into the trap of feeling that my love for nature is trivial or ‘worldly’. This is a useful reminder for Christians that we have a responsibility for what goes on here and now.