Vole patrol

Water vole numbers have plummeted in recent decades. The decline has been one the steepest of any British mammal (an unenviable position). They’re now absent from 94% of their former sites. Here in Surrey, the last reported sighting of a water vole was six years ago. But have they disappeared from Surrey completely?

A sighting from a decade or two ago indicated that there had been water voles along the stretch of the River Mole that I survey for Riversearch. Yesterday I set out, with Alex from Surrey Wildlife Trust, to see if there were any traces of water voles remaining.

I have to admit that I was skeptical. While my stretch of the River Mole has escaped some of the modifcations that drive water voles away (concrete banks impossible to climb or make burrows in), it’s still not promising water vole habitat. There’s not a huge amount of vegetation in the river, and the Mole isn’t renowned for its water quality. (There’s a sewage works just upstream from my patch, and it starts life at Gatwick airport, which is hardly auspicious).

The survey involved one of us (Alex, since she possessed some very leaky waders) getting into the river, and walking along a stretch looking closely at one bank for any signs of water voles (burrows, pawprints, droppings, feeding lawns). Meanwhile, I followed along the top of the bank, drawing a map of key features.

The 100m stretch we surveyed had steep earth banks, and was lined with trees. The river was mostly fairly shallow at this point (0.5m). Sadly there was no sign of any water voles. And, even worse, there were lots of signs of mink. The rise of mink (an invasive non-native species) has been another key contributing factor to the decline of the water vole, as mink are excellent hunters and small enough to fit in a water vole’s burrow, leaving them no safe place to hide.

Mink and heron(?) prints in the silt by the River Mole
Mink and heron(?) prints in the silt by the River Mole

Apart from the mink signs we also found some juvenile rat prints, some heron prints and saw a kingfisher.

While it was disappointing result, this sort of evidence is needed to work out how best to help water voles recover in Surrey. So far 40 surveys, like the one I carried out, have been done on sites where old records of water voles exist. There’s about 200 sites in total that Surrey Wildlife Trust want to check, before proceeding to the next stage. As well as actively surveying sites, they’re also asking members of the public to submit any water vole sightings in the county. They have a useful vole ID guide on their website.

To find out more about the project, visit the Vole Patrol page of the Surrey Wildlife Trust website.

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August Riversearch: more Himalayan Balsam

I timed my latest Riversearch survey well today. Yesterday it was just too darned hot, and it rained a lot of this morning, but this afternoon,  after the rain, there was a brief period of steam and solitude. In addition to the usual surveying the River Mole for signs of pollution, invasive species and, optimistically, hints of otters or water voles, I was also carrying out a recce for a more indepth water vole survey I hope to do later this week.

Himalayan Balsam by the River Mole at the foot of Box Hill
Himalayan Balsam by the River Mole at the foot of Box Hill

Before I get too distracted by water voles (or the absence of them), here’s how the Riversearch survey went. I’d just turned off the pavement onto the meadow by the river when I spotted my first animal: a small, bold mouse. By its size it must be a juvenile woodmouse. It was surpisingly calm, and let me approach to within a metre before retreating to a safer distance (1.5 metres – I must look quite unthreatening).

I was pleased to see there was no one sleeping rough under the bridge this time (particularly since the river level has recently been over the ledge where the person was sleeping last time I surveyed).

It must be a good time to be a fruit and/or nut-eating animal or bird at the moment – the brambles were laden with blackberries, and the trees have started dropping acorns and hazelnuts. But I saw and heard little in the way of bird life – a couple of crows and a duck.

Lots of blackberries
Lots of blackberries

There were no obvious signs of pollution in the water, and the river was relatively clear (the Mole is hardly a sparkling example of water purity, but the recent rains have obviously not muddied it too much). The bad news is there were lots of small pockets of Himalayan Balsam all along my stretch. I spoke to an angler who fishes up near Gatwick, and says there’s lots up there. All this is bad news further downstream – I know in the last couple of years they’ve been doing lots of work to get rid of it near Leatherhead, but the seeds are carried by water, so it will just keep coming back unless the upstream patches of it are tackled.

Himalayan Balsam
Himalayan Balsam

Apart from that there was little else to report – a few more riffles than normal (that’s a good thing as they oxygenate the river), and quite a bit of litter where people have been picnicking by the river. I even came across an abandoned rubber dinghy. I really can’t understand why, when you choose to spend time in a place because it’s lovely and unspoilt, you’d then leave behind your rubbish to spoil it for others (and more importantly, pose a hazard to wildlife).

Abandoned rubber dinghy
Abandoned rubber dinghy

To carry out our water vole survey (as part of Surrey Wildlife Trust’s ‘Vole Patrol’) we’re going to need to get into the river, so I was scoping out whether the river is shallow enough to do so, and whether we’ll be able to get in and out ok. Along most of the length of my stretch the banks are very steep, but there are a few spots where there’s a more gentle slope, and the river should be manageable in waders. I’m hopeful that, provided there’s not too much rain over the next few days, we’ll be able to survey it without the need for a boat (I suspect the rubber dinghy’s been abandoned for a reason, so I’m not sure I’d trust it enough!). More of that, if it happens, later.

In the meantime, I must remember to send my survey data to the Riversearch team, and clean my wellies to make sure there’s no quagga mussels clinging to them…

Bird Nerd Part 11: headlines from the last year

Another year has passed, so I have another stack of data about my garden birds to wade through. I started recording data about the number of birds I see back in June 2010, so I’ve now got 5 years of data. In this post I’ll just share some of the headlines for the last year (June 2014 – May 2015).

Methods

This post outlines how I collect the data. In brief, I record the maximum number of individuals of a bird species I see at the same time in my garden, while sitting in my study working from home for the day.  This year I have 23 days of observations, which is the lowest so far – I think I must have had more meetings at work. Darn this paid employment thing getting in the way of birdwatching! (I love my job really.)

Averages, minimums and maximums

On average, I saw 18 individual birds of 7 different species per observation day. This did vary quite a bit over the year – the lowest was 2 birds of 2 species (in September) and the highest was 39 individual birds (in October) and 12 species (in December). The total number of species I saw over the year was 17.

The species league table

Average numbers of birds seen per observation day, and proportion of observation days seen on
Average numbers of birds seen per observation day, and proportion of observation days seen on

Notable visitors…

We had one visit from each of the following birds (having had none the year before):

Chaffinch
Chaffinch
Male blackcap
Male blackcap
  • Chaffinch
  • Blackcap
  • Pied wagtail
  • Song thrush

…and noticeable absences

goldfinch
Goldfinch

This year we had no visits from wrens, goldfinches or siskins on observation days. This is the first year with no wrens or goldfinches recorded.

Coming soon

I’ve got another post or two planned looking at changes over the last five years, and also seasonal patterns in my garden visitors. (I even have hopes of presenting some of data in a more visual way than usual).

August dormousing: a new nest

August is firmly into dormouse breeding season, so it’s always an exciting month to check boxes. Added to the usual suspense of will there be a sweet dormouse in this box, is the added possibility of even sweeter baby dormice. So, on a sunny morning trekking through the woods in search of dormice is a rather pleasant occupation.

The woods are much quieter in August – the birds have finished breeding, and are quietly focused on food rather than defending territory or attracting mates with their song. And, while we saw deer prints, we didn’t see or hear any actual deer.

It was a lovely warm morning – a good one to be scrambling about the woods. This was the 6th box check I’ve led at this site, so I’m getting better at knowing where all the boxes are (except the elusive box 27, which is hidden in a hazel under a fallen yew).

For this month’s check I was assisted by Dr C, a couple of volunteers plus a 10 year old girl. So what did we find? Well, the birds have long ago finished nesting, so there were plenty of smelly old nests to be cleaned out. There were no signs of wood mice or yellow necked mice, but there were signs of dormice. In addition to the adapted bird nest we found a dormouse in back in June, there was a new nest, made with very fresh, green hazel leaves on top of an old bird nest. It was in the last box we checked – I’ve done so many box checks where we find dormice in the final box, I was very hopeful when found this.

I’m confident that it’s a dormouse nest – apodemus mice tend to use brown leaves, and don’t weave it together neatly like this one was. But it didn’t use any honeysuckle bark, which dormice in Surrey often do. We explored the nest carefully, especially since it’s so fresh – the leaves looked like they’d only just been picked off the trees. But sadly the dormouse who made it wasn’t at home.

Dormousing isn’t the ideal wildlife activity for a child – most of the boxes were too high for her to see into, but at least she got a chance to have a look at a couple of dormice nests when we took the boxes off the tree and into the bag for exploration. Plus there were deer prints to spot, wood sorrel to taste and old birds nests to remove. So hopefully there was enough of interest not to put her off. And she was good at looking for the boxes (which reminds me a bit of letterboxing on Dartmoor).

So, I’m disappointed that we didn’t get to see any dormice, but pleased that there are signs of fresh dormouse activities. Hopefully September will bring us better luck.

Taking stock of my wildlife garden

I’m not the world’s best or keenest gardener. My attempts at vegetable growing this year have largely failed (thwarted once again by slugs and lack of time). And weeds have rather taken over the border. So the bit of encouragement that came my via Surrey Wildlife Trust‘s Wildlife Garden Awards was most welcome.

Surrey Wildlife Trust are trying to encourage more people to provide shelter, food and drink for our wild neighbours in their gardens. Gardens have the potential to become havens for wildlife, if they’re managed the right way, no matter how small they are. So the Trust have set up a Wildlife Garden Award scheme for gardeners in Surrey.

Having previously lived in a flat without a garden, I was excited by the opportunities having a (tiny) garden offered when we moved here. For the first year or two we did quite a lot of work to try to make our garden more wildlife friendly. But having made those changes, and not had any major wildlife garden improvement projects on the go for a while, I’d lost a bit of perspective on how we were doing. So filling in the self-assessment form was a revelation – we’re not doing badly at all! I don’t find out the results until the end of September / beginning of October, but I was pleased by the number of boxes I was able to tick:

Food features:

  • Bird feeding station
    Bird feeding station

    Bird feeding station

  • Nectar rich flowers
  • Fruit trees or berry bearing shrubs
  • Perennials left un-cut until spring
  • Vegetable patch / container
  • Herb garden

Shelter features:

  • Dead wood / log pile

    Finished hedgehog box in situ
    Finished hedgehog box in situ
  • Climbing plants
  • Some lawn left to grow long
  • Mini wild flower meadow
  • Hedgehog and bird boxes
  • Insect hotel

Water features:

The mini pond
The mini pond
  • Wildlife pond – no fish!
  • Bird bath

Management features:

  • No use of pesticide & slug pellets
  • Avoid chemical weed killers
  • Compost heap & wormery
  • Rain butts
  • Use peat free compost

Some of the boxes I wasn’t able to tick were ones that I’d never be able to tick for my garden – it’s not near a stream or on boggy ground, and is too small for a native hedge. But being reminded that I am doing a reasonable job is reassuring, and it’s inspiring me to think about what else I could do to make my garden even more wildlife friendly. Longer term, I’d love to turn our flat roof into a green roof, although that will take a bit of planning and expense.

I guess it shouldn’t have come as a complete surprise to me, given the number of wild visitors our garden attracts (mammals, amphibians, reptiles, insects and birds). But we all need a bit of encouragement every now and then. So thanks, Surrey Wildlife Trust, for providing it.

If you’d like a bit of inspiration for how to make your garden or balcony super attractive to wildlife, visit:

A hedgehog in the daytime – disaster or delight?

I was getting concerned for our garden’s hedgehog population – we hadn’t seen one for a while, and the mealworms I had left out went uneaten for a few days (that never happens if hedgehogs are about!). But I wasn’t expecting my next sighting of a hedgehog to be in broad daylight.

Usually if a hedgehog’s out during the day, that’s a bad sign. The last time we found one in our garden in daylight, it was obviously poorly – sluggish (which is strange, given our hedgehogs never seem to eat any of the thriving slug population in our garden) and disorientated. We ended up taking him to the local wildlife hospital, Wildlife Aid, where he stayed for a few months, being treated for a respiratory infection, dehydration and underweight. (It ended happily, with us being able to release him back into the garden, and him scurrying off, a picture of hoggy health and haste.)

But this time was different. The hedgehog was active and purposeful. I wanted to know more – should I be worried, or was it natural behaviour? A look at the British Hedgehog Preservation Society website soon settled that. While hedgehogs are nocturnal, there are a couple of reasons that a health hedgehog might be out and about in daytime:

  • it might be a new mum, grabbing a quick bite to eat while the babies are asleep
  • or it could be an expectant mum gathering nesting materials ready to give birth

It being daylight, I got a good view of the hedgehog and what it was up to. It was collecting mouthfuls of bedding material from our ‘mini meadow’, and carrying them into our hedgehog box. Which hopefully means that ‘it’ was a ‘she’, about to give birth, and planning to do so in our hedgehog box!

According to hedgehog expert Pat Morris, young hedgehogs usually venture out of the nest for the first time 3-4 weeks after their born, so we’ve got a bit of wait before we find out how it’s all gone. But we’ve seen mum (we’ve named her Florence) a few times in the evening, tucking into the cat food and mealworms we leave out for her.

Hedgehog and hoglets from 2013
Hedgehog and hoglets from 2013

I’ve never been sure how much our hedgehog box gets used. Hedgehogs are rather nomadic, and will use several nests in a single week, so I wouldn’t expect a particular hedgehog to move in and stick his nameplate on the door (entrance tunnel). We know that it has been used from time to time, but I’ve always had a suspicion that the hedgehogs prefer our compost heap to the box (that’s where the fencers found one hibernating when they were fixing our fence, so they put it safely in the box). So it’s really good to know that Florence has chosen to bring up her new family there.

Finished hedgehog box in situ
Finished hedgehog box in situ

I’m dying to know how things are getting on in there, but obviously I have to be careful not to disturb the young family (if there is one now). Hedgehog mums have been known to eat their babies if they’re disturbed soon after birth. Or it could just drive her to find a new nest. I tried setting the trail cam to keep an eye of the entrance of the box, to keep track of when Florence comes and goes. But the box is in the meadow, so all I got was footage of the plants rustling, and the odd glimpse of prickles. So I’m going to have to be patient. Not my strong point.

Anyway, Dr C and I are delighted to know that the hedgehog box we built is helping a new hedgehog family – hedgehogs need all the help they can get these days. It was well worth the effort of building it!

Threat to Manacles Marine Conservation Zone

The Lizard peninsula, down on the southernmost tip of Cornwall, is a special place. The beautiful natural scenery and abundant wildlife attract tourists, which the local economy relies on. Just off the eastern coast of the Lizard lie the Manacle rocks, which have caused many wrecks over the centuries. The rocks are a haven to wildlife, including rare maerl beds (like coral – slow growing and irreplaceable), bottlenose dolphins, and basking sharks. The sea around the Manacles was one of the first areas to be designated a Marine Conservation Zone. The land by it is an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty and a Site of Special Scientific Interest. But all this is under threat from plans to open up a superquarry and build a huge breakwater out into the Marine Conservation Zone.

Picture of Coverack harbour, just over the hill from where the Dean Superquarry is planned
Picture of Coverack harbour, just over the hill from where the Dean Superquarry is planned

Marine Conservation Zones were set up two years ago to provide strong protection for some of our most precious marine habitats. The government is currently considering designating a further 23 zones, to add to the original 27. But the threat to the Manacles Marine Conservation Zone could undermine this.

There’s a history of quarrying in this part of the Lizard. In fact, my great great grandfather moved to the area to help open Dean Quarry. In the next bay along from Dean Quarry there is a smaller active quarry. But the scale of the planned superquarry goes beyond anything previously seen in the area.

Large amounts of rock are needed to build a tidal lagoon in Swansea bay, to generate renewable energy. There are also a number of other tidal lagoons rumoured, which would also require massive amounts of rock. The plan is to reopen Dean Quarry as a Superquarry, extracting 500% more rock per year as in its heyday, and operating 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.

Generating renewable energy is vital for tackling climate change. But that doesn’t mean that the stone needed for the Swansea lagoon has to come from one of our most precious and highly protected areas. The impact of the scheme on the marine and land wildlife, and the local community and economy also need to be considered. So far this hasn’t happened. Marine experts are worried that silt from the quarry could kill off the 8,000 year old maerl beds, and negatively impact on other marine wildlife in the Marine Conservation Zone. The Secretary of State recently ruled that a full environmental impact assessment should have been carried out before planning permission was granted for the first phase of the development. This wasn’t done, and Cornwall County Council have ignored the Secretary of State’s intervention.

The local community are also concerned about the impact that the Superquarry will have on the local environment, tourism, and their health and quality of life. They have set up a campaign group, and are taking Cornwall County Council to Judicial Review over the initial planning decision (which means they need money to pay for expert legal fees).

If the Superquarry is allowed to go ahead (particularly with the planned breakwater and jetties) it sets the precedent that Marine Conservation Zone status offers little actual protection, and may enable other damaging activities in other Marine Conservation Zones. It’s vital that this first challenge is defeated to protect both the Manacles Marine Conservation Zone, and ensure the protection of other zones is not undermined.

To find out more about the campaign, visit the Community Against Dean Superquarry facebook page or the CADS website.

Cycle races, quiet and learning to share

I left the house at 8.30am this morning, and immediately noticed something was missing. Something that I don’t usually notice at all – the background hum of traffic. Today is the Prudential RideLondon cycle race, which comes through my home town, and means the roads are all shut for most of the day. As I walked to church the main sound was a distant plane overhead, and the whir of the first few cyclists to make it this far. (By the time I was walking back from church it was another story – the streets were lined with people cheering on the cyclists who were still coming through).

The RideLondon event is a bit controversial where I live. Many people are inconvenienced by not being able to get anywhere by road for the day. Some locals enjoy the festive atmosphere, and the chance to see some of the top cyclists in the world come past their doors (I fall into that camp, even though I’m not normally a cycling fanatic). Those who haven’t noticed the numerous signs warning of road closures that have been up for the last month or so are left frustrated – we heard one driver at the end of our road talking to stewards, asking how he can get to Gatwick. I wouldn’t like to be in that situation (although at least the trains are still running). And while some businesses on the route do well out of the custom of the crowds who come to  watch the cyclists, others who aren’t on the actual route, but whose customers can’t reach them, lose out.

Once the 25,000 amateur cyclists have been through, we wait for the professionals to arrive. They do 5 laps of my town, so I get plenty of chance to see them. And the race is televised on BBC1, so the whole country gets to see the splendour of the Surrey Hills (on a day like today they look glorious).

It’s such a treat to have a day without traffic. I’d love to know what effect it has on air quality and carbon emissions. It’s made a noticeable difference to noise levels (although when the pros come through the filming helicopters and support vehicles will make up for the absence of ordinary traffic). I wish we could have a few more car-free days. Some South American cities have them regularly, but I can’t see them taking off here anytime soon.

The Surrey Hills have always attracted plenty of cyclists (weird people who ride up hills for pleasure), but the numbers have noticeably increased since it was first announced the 2012 Olympic Road Race would come through the area. Every hobby cyclist wants to test themselves of the route that Wiggins, Cavendish and the rest competed on. That does lead to some conflicts, particularly on narrow country lanes. On a sunny weekend it can take much longer to get anywhere on the narrow lanes round here, as there are so many cyclists out and about. And, while most are considerate, there are a few who take unnecessary risks, zooming round blind bends in the middle of the road.

Olympic cyclists come through the Surrey Hills
Olympic cyclists come through the Surrey Hills

As I’m not a cyclist myself, I don’t know how much riders get to enjoy the views, and being amidst the woods and hills of this area. Does it all rush by in too much of a blur? Or do they get to experience the same feeling of communing with nature that I do when I’m walking? I think everyone should spend time enjoying nature, and if cycling is what gets them to do it, and seeing the pros race through our beautiful countryside inspires a few more people to give it a go (or even just come and visit), then that’s a good thing. If that means that next time I’m driving to my dormouse site it takes me an extra five then I can live with that. I just need to learn to share what I have the privilege to enjoy.