Category Archives: Mammals

Snorkelling with seals

This summer we were lucky enough to go back to my favourite place on earth – the Isles of Scilly. They’re stunningly beautiful, and I had a wonderful time sailing about the channel between the islands. But the highlight of the trip was easily snorkelling with seals (thanks to St Martin’s Dive School for taking us out!).

This was the third time that Dr C and I have snorkelled with seals, and each time we’ve been very lucky, as they’ve been in a playful mood. The first time we did it we both swallowed quite a lot of seawater when a big bull seal swam straight up to us, kissed Dr C on the mask, and gave me a hug with his flippers. Since then we’ve been a bit more prepared (and less scared), but snorkelling with them does give you a different perspective from just watching them from a boat or land. They seem to enjoy sneaking up on snorkelers, and I have been made to jump more than once by a seal nudging me when I didn’t know it was there.

From a boat or dry land, you don’t really get a sense of their size. When you’re in the water with them they seem huge. An adult bull grey seal can weigh up to 250kg, and be up to 2.5m long. When they’re hauled up on rocks or beaches they are pretty ungainly, but see them in the water and even the biggest bull is graceful, agile and pretty speedy. Some of them seemed to enjoy showing off by corkscrewing around in the water, hanging upside down or doing headstands, before zooming off when they got bored.

Our encounters with the seals have been on their terms. They’re in their element, graceful and fast, while we are clumsy and slow in our wetsuits. I’m sure, if they wanted to, they could do a lot of damage, as they are fearsome predators, but luckily they’ve been content with nibbling my fins or gloves.

I’ve done a fair amount of wildlife watching in my time, from garden birds in Surrey to elephants in Africa. But snorkelling with seals is a very different experience. While usually, when watching wildlife, it’s very much you watching them (and trying to keep out of sight, sound and smell), snorkelling with seals is definitely a two-way experience. They seem as curious about us as we are about them. It’s an amazing feeling of connection: a wild animal taking time to investigate and play with me, for no other reason than curiosity.

Seal
Seal
Seal
Seal
Jellyfish
Jellyfish
Seal
Seal
Inquisitive seal
Inquisitive seal
Two seals
Two seals
Seal
Seal
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Profile: dormice (the cutest creatures in existence?)

Torpid dormouse
Torpid dormouse

Hazel dormouse, muscardinus avellenarius

I thought I would start a series of species profiles with the hazel dormouse, as over the last few years I’ve spent quite a bit of time monitoring them, and they are just about the cutest creatures in existence. (If you’re not sure you agree with that, watch this and then tell me what is cuter).

Hazel dormice are small, nocturnal mammals that spend most of their lives up trees, so few people get to see them in the wild. They have quite a varied diet, depending on what’s available at the time, including small insects, pollen, fruit, and nuts. They get the first part of their name from their fondness for hazel nuts. They live in woodlands, and prefer woods with a wide range of trees and a good understory, so food is available for them all the period they are active. Hedges are also important for them, both as a source of food and as a corridor between woodlands.

Dormice seem to enjoy proving dormouse experts wrong, so are sometimes found in unlikely places, including conifer plantations and small strips of wood between the carriageways of the A30.

Hazel dormice are the only dormouse species that is native to the UK, although there are a few rogue glis glis (edible dormice) (a much bigger, more troublesome type) in a small part of the country. (By the way, edible dormice really need to work on their branding – having ‘edible’ as part of your name has got to be bad news… how about adding an ‘in’ to the start of ‘edible’?)

While the dormouse’s range used to cover much of the UK, it is now largely confined to the south of England, with a few small pockets further north. This is thought to be largely due to habitat loss and fragmentation. Because of this, they are protected by legislation that means that you must not catch or disturb dormice without a licence. Any developments that threaten areas where dormice live must put in place mitigation measures to compensate for the damage caused.

Unlike other types of mice, they are not prolific breeders. Mature females will usually have 1 litter of around 4 young per year. Survival of these young depends on enough food being available for them to fatten up before hibernating.

Dormice are not the most active creatures. They spend about 6 months of every year hibernating. Even when they’re not hibernating they go into a state of torpor (very deep sleep) when it is a bit chilly (like the snoring chap in the video).

The People’s Trust for Endangered Species coordinates the National Dormouse Monitoring Programme, which keeps track of how the dormouse population is doing.

If you would like to learn more about these adorable creatures, I can recommend the following:

  • Dormice by Pat Morris: an accessible book focusing on Hazel dormice and edible dormice in Britain.
  • The Hazel Dormouse by Rimvydas Juškaitis & Sven Büchner: a scientific monograph summarising what is known from studies of the hazel dormouse in Europe.

If you would like to help dormice:

  • Sponsor a dormouse: sponsoring a dormouse through Surrey Wildlife Trust will help to pay for new dormice nest boxes and maintain existing ones, which are important for both monitoring the species and giving them suitable nest sites for breeding.

Our national species is… the hedgehog?!

Hedgehog
Our national species

Germany has the magnificent Golden Eagle, Italy the wolf, India the Royal Bengal Tiger, and Uganda the proud crested crane. And our national animal? Perhaps the mighty red deer, or fearsome hunter the otter? Or beautiful barn owl? No. The people (or at least the readers of the BBC Wildlife Magazine) have spoken, and our national animal – the creature that represents Britain – is the humble hedgehog.

At first I was a bit taken aback by this. The hedgehog isn’t exactly top of the foodchain, and in looks, it’s more cute than beautiful or awe inspiring. Hedgehogs remind me of wombles, with their mobile noses. While they’re good at what they do, they’re not the cleverest creatures. They’re not even cuddly. Hedgehogs are more often the butt of jokes than anything else. (How do hedgehogs mate? Carefully.)

But on reflection, hedgehogs are a great choice. There’s something appealingly egalitarian about hedgehogs. You don’t need to live in a national park to stand a chance of seeing one – they live among us, even in urban areas. You don’t need to stake them out for days, in special hides with high powered binoculars. Most nights (when not hibernating) they happily stop and eat just 2 metres from our patio doors, and don’t mind the garden light.

They’re also very inoffensive. Our more impressive animals all have groups of people they’re unpopular with. For deer it’s people whose crops and trees they damage. Foxes are unpopular with poultry keepers, and otters and herons with fishermen and fish farmers. Badgers are meles non grata with cattle farmers, and game keepers often aren’t keen on birds of prey. But hedgehogs? Almost no-one dislikes hedgehogs. As Pat Morris recounts, in his excellent The New Hedgehog Book, a survey of over 1,200 WI members in 1990 found that 98% of respondents liked hedgehogs.

In fact, not only are hedgehogs hard to dislike, they’re positively popular. Gardeners love them because of their insatiable hunger for garden pests. One of my Dragons Den ideas is to start up a hedgehog farm, to sell to gardeners. Disappointingly, the ones that visit our garden seem remarkably uninterested in eating slugs (of which there are plenty). I’ve watched a hedgehog tucking into mealworms, carefully munching around a slug that has climbed into the bowl. But still, despite not pulling their weight in the slug devouring stakes, they’re always a welcome sight in our garden.

So, on reflection, I think the readers of BBC Wildlife Magazine have got it right. Hedgehogs are a great choice for national species. One everyone can get behind. And one that needs everyone to get behind it. According to the People’s Trust for Endangered Species, hedgehog numbers dropped by one third between 2003 and 2012. What was once a common sight is now becoming rarer, and many people I speak to have never seen a hedgehog in real life.

If you’d like to do something to help our prickly national species, there’s some good advice here. Better still, you could become a hedgehog champion as part of Hedgehog Street, and work with your neighbours to create a hedgehog friendly street. Let’s try to make sure that the British national species is around for future generations, and doesn’t become as rare as the Welsh dragon…

Welcome to the Wild South!

To start my blog, I thought maybe an introduction to my wildlife garden might be in order. We (Dr C, Fat Cat and I) live in a small town, and have a small garden (about 7.5m by 7.5m). Since we moved in (back in 2009) we’ve been gradually trying to turn it into a haven for bugs, birds and other beasts, and have had more success than I anticipated.

The RSPB have some brilliant resources for making homes for wildlife, and many of the ideas we’ve used have come from that.

When we moved in, the garden had a couple of decked areas, a lawn, a couple of borders and a small box hedge. A rampant buddleia has been an attraction for butterflies, bees and birds. Since then we’ve added a bird feeding station, a barrel pond, a small area of meadow, a hedgehog house, birdboxes, some small trees in pots, a wood pile, a raised vegetable bed, an insect log, a bird bath, and probably some more things I’ve forgotten.

Since then we’ve seen 25 species of bird in the garden, along with hedgehogs, a fox, mice, a slow worm, frogs, various pond life and numerous insect species. It’s been really satisfying seeing how quickly wildlife starts to make use of the things we’ve provided. Watching the garden has been a real source of pleasure to me, and I’ve learnt a lot along the way.

The meadow
The meadow
Raised bed & buddleia
Raised bed & buddleia
The mini pond
The mini pond
Bird feeding station
Bird feeding station