I had the pleasure of attending the Surrey Wildlife Garden Awards this afternoon, and winning the ‘Small private gardens’ category. Dawn Fielding, the Surrey Wildlife Trust Community Engagement Officer, gave a short talk explaining the importance of gardens for wildlife, and the pressure wildlife in Surrey is under.
23% of Surrey’s species are extinct or under threat. Gardens are a big opportunity to help our wildlife. They make up 12% of the land area of the county – more than nature reserves, so have the potential to make an impact.
The awards recognised school gardens, community gardens, business grounds and private gardens that are havens for wildlife. This year there were 145 entries, with around half achieving gold award level, so I’m thrilled our garden has come top in its category (for the second time!).
It was very interesting to hear and see pictures of what others are doing in their gardens, and fascinating to look around the Therapy Garden (which won the Community Garden Category).
Neither Dr C nor I are particularly green-fingered, nor do we have massive amounts of time to spend gardening, but we do like the occasional Womble project (see the ‘How to‘ section for some examples). I like to think that if we can do it in our little garden, anyone can.
Nice as the award is, the real reward for wildlife gardening is watching the wildlife make use of the habitat, shelter and food we provide.
It’s been a while since I last wrote about my British Animal Challenge, but I haven’t forgotten it. I managed to tick another species on my list this Easter: the bottlenose dolphin.
Easter day was glorious down in Cornwall. Beautiful weather, and ideal for a walk. So that’s what we did. We followed the coast path from Godrevy Beach, up round Dean Quarry (more on that later).
Of course, whenever I’m by the sea I keep my eyes peeled for exciting marine wildlife. A reasonably choppy day means I can spot vast numbers of imaginary basking sharks. But that day wasn’t so good for spotting imaginary wildlife; too flat. Which meant, when I did spot a fin breaking through the surface of the water, I knew it was something real.
The binoculars came out, and I was able to tell it was some kind of dolphin. Or rather, dolphins. There was a group of five. They travelled parallel to the cliffs, not far out, for quite a while, giving us an excellent, prolonged view.
I couldn’t identify which species of dolphin they were there and then. I could tell they weren’t common dolphins or porpoises, both of which I’ve seen quite a few times before. But I didn’t know what they were.
As soon as we got back to an internet connection, I looked up an ID guide, and concluded that they were bottlenose dolphins. This was confirmed a week later when we went out on a wildlife cruise, and, chatting to Captain Keith found that they’d seen the same group of dolphins in the same place on Easter Sunday afternoon, and they were, indeed, bottlenoses. I also learnt that one of the 5 was a youngster, which I hadn’t realised.
Bottlenose dolphins are between 2-4m long, and impressively intelligent. They use sound for communication as well as hunting, and some have been trained by the military to locate sea mines. They can live for more than 40 years, and jump 6m in the air. They’re pretty impressive animals.
The area we saw them in is the Manacles Marine Conservation Zone, off the east coast of the Lizard peninsula. This is a very special area for marine wildlife, but is under threat from plans to open a superquarry. Aside from the noise of the blasting and loading, pollution risk, increased traffic through the site of special scientific interest and area of outstanding natural beauty, and light pollution, plans involve building a new breakwater out into the Marine Conservation Zone. It was lovely seeing the dolphins there (we often spot cetaceans in that area), but there’s a real question over the future of wildlife in that area. If you want to find out more, visit the Community Against Dean Superquarry website.
We had a fantastic dormouse box check at my site this month, finding six sleepy juveniles and an active adult.
Juveniles are this year’s young, aged at least 28 days and weighing more than 10g. Their fur isn’t as golden as an adult, but they are still super cute.
It’s really encouraging finding them this month, having not found any pregnant females or mothers with young last month – it shows they are breeding already, but using natural nest sites rather than dormice boxes. These youngsters have plenty of time to fatten up prior to hibernation.
I particularly enjoyed this box check as Dan, who’s a Surrey Dormouse Group trainee, working towards his licence, was in charge of the clipboard, directing the volunteers and recording data. This freed me up to actually check boxes for a change. There’s a delightful moment of suspense when you slide the lid of a dormouse box across and peak in; what will be in the box?
The dormice at my site continue to build rubbish nests. We never find textbook examples, with woven honeysuckle cores surrounded by green leaves. It’d be easy to dismiss many of the nests we find dormice in as apodemus nests or bird nests. This site has taught me to investigate any possible nest carefully.
We found two juveniles in what was little more than a pile of leaves. And there was a shallow, mossy nest, which didn’t look very dormousy, but I checked it anyway. On first exploration of the cavity and down the sides I could feel nothing. I was almost ready to conclude it was empty, but I went back to double check the cavity and ended up finding three dormice.
The check ended up taking quite a while, partly because we found quite a few dormice, and partly because those we did find weren’t in any hurry to get back into their nests. Several of the juveniles we found were awake but sleepy. One decided that halfway through climbing back into its nest was a good time to fall asleep. Another decided to leave its tail dangling out of the box for ages.
I’ve been checking dormouse boxes for seven years, but they can still surprise, entertain and delight me.
How do hedgehogs mate? Carefully, as the old joke goes. Last night I didn’t quite get to witness mating, but did get to watch hedgehog courtship at close quarters.
Just before I went to bed last night, I went down to the patio door to see if there were any hedgehogs about. It was still quite light, so I wasn’t expecting one, but there, snuffling round just the other side of the door, was a small hedgehog (trying to hoover up any mealworms Reproachful Robin had dropped from the feeder attached to the door).
Please to see one so close (separated only by the doubleglazing), I glanced round the garden and saw another, larger hedgehog approaching. He clearly was not after the mealworms.
What ensued was a protracted courtship. He circled her, trying to get her, occasionally rubbing the side of his snout against the ground (do they have scent glands there?). She, equally determined, snorted regularly and turned round on the spot to make sure he never got behind her.
Occasionally he would change direction, and try another angle of approach. When she moved away from the door, so her back was no longer protected by it, I thought she might be softening towards him. But the circuits continued. From time to time she would seem to get annoyed with him, and charge him. But then the dance continued.
It was fantastic seeing such an intimate moment at such close quarters. But after 45 minutes of this, tiredness won and I headed up to bed. So I’ve no idea how it ended. Let’s hope we have little hoglets visiting the garden soon!
The dormousing year always starts with cleaning out the boxes, and doing any maintenance or replacements needed, ready for when the dormice belatedly emerge from hibernation. Often it’s not the most pleasant of tasks – March can be chilly, and getting rid of manky woodmice nests is never particularly pleasant. This year we were lucky – the weather was pleasant, and the boxes weren’t in too bad condition.
My site is still qutie new, and relatively unscathed by squirrels (who, at some sites, get through large numbers of boxes each year, targeting the glue that holds the layers together of the marine plywood we use). This means there wasn’t too much maintenance to do.
We did have a few old dormice nests to remove. Whereas we’d normally leave the old nests on the ground, this time we bagged them up carefully – I can’t tell you why at the moment, but watch this space… There were also a few beautifully mossy old wren’s nests to remove.
None of the boxes were occupied yet, but hopefully with the lovely weather we’ve been having we might find some dormice in our April check.
It was a relief to be back out in the woods, after the winter break. I know nothing stops me going for walks in the woods in winter, but it’s so nice to be back in the surveying season again.
I have been in partial hibernation this last couple of months, hence the lack of blog posts. But I have managed to do somethings, one of which is sift through my dormouse data from last year. I’ve made a little animation showing how dormice and other animals have used the boxes at my monitoring site over the last couple of years.
It’s great to see dormice making use of the boxes we put up in 2015. Hopefully it means this year they’ll start making use of the boxes we put up at the start of 2016.
The day was overcast, and the trees lining the river were bare, looking almost desolate. As soon as I got down to the river for my Riversearch survey on the final day of 2016, I felt convinced that I would see a kingfisher.
The river level was quite low, and relatively clear for a change. No signs of pollution. My winter surveys are always the most thorough. The impenetrable barricade of nettles and brambles had died back enough for me to get much closer to the river than normal.
As far as the survey goes, there was little to report (which is good, but not interesting). I was rewarded for tearing myself away from the fireside by a glimpse of a kingfisher, the most spectacular of British birds. But that wasn’t all. As I retraced my steps, back to the car, I spotted my first ever goldcrest. I was very excited about this, as I have long wanted to see one.
As though the kingfisher and goldcrest hadn’t provided enough colour to make up for the dullness of the day, a pair of bright green ring-necked parakeets also made a show.
It was as though nature was reminding me that although 2016 may have felt pretty bleak, there were bright spots in it. As I start 2017, uncertain what it will bring, I will look out for beauty.
2016 has been short on good news, and I have been a bit despondent of late. Luckily this little fellow arrived in the post on Friday, to remind me that not everything has been a disaster this year. I’ve called him (unoriginally) Justin.
I’m intrigued to see how the trial goes. Beavers, like humans, shape the landscape they live in. Chopping down trees, creating lakes and changing the course of rivers. I got to see some of the effect they were having when I visited the River Otter. There’s evidence that the changes beavers make may benefit other species, and reduce flooding downstream. But can we learn to live with a species that can make such dramatic changes in a short time?
If the trial is successful, it will give me hope that native species we have driven to the brink of extinction may, one day, make a comeback. If Devon Wildlife Trust can’t raise sufficient funds to cover the cost of the trial to 2020, the beavers will have to be rehomed in captivity. I hope it succeeds, and one day I will see a beaver in the wild. If you’d like more info, or to donate to the crowd funding appeal, visit SupportDevonsBeavers.org
For the third year running I entered the world of commerce, setting my photos to work raising money for charity. The craft fair I had a stall at was ideally timed for Christmas shopping. Once again I was selling cards, bookmarks, large prints and calendars featuring my wildlife photos. As ever, the craft fair was a great opportunity to talk to people about wildlife.
This year my bestsellers were the 2017 calendar (now sold out!) and the kestrel and barn owl bookmarks. I am really pleased bookmark sales have been good this year, as I sold hardly any in previous years, but I really like them (if I am allowed to say that). It’s also good the calendars have all sold, since they obviously have a use-by date.
The other thing I am pleased about with this year’s calendar is that most of the photos were taken this year. I haven’t had much time to process my photos this year, but I have taken quite a lot, and some of them made the grade for the calendar.
Disappointingly, I only sold one large print. Since I do the same craft fair each year, I wonder if I have saturated that particular market. Do you have any suggestions for other photo products I could sell, next year?
As the alarm went off at 5.20am the other day, I did wonder why I had let myself in for such an early start on a precious day off. The rain beating against the windscreen as I drove through the dark, empty roads didn’t encourage me, either. I pulled up in the near deserted superstore car park, and it crossed my mind that this was not a normal thing to be doing.
The rain had stopped by the time I had got out of the car and wellified myself, and the remains of the supermoon cut cleanly through the sky. Our small group of like minded eccentrics congregated and headed off down an obscure path in the corner of the car park, lighting headtorches as we moved out of orange glare of the street lamps.
The path went under the dual carriageway, beside the river, to an isolated area of waist-high marshy grasses, visible only in the small patches illuminated by head torch beams. After a bit of searching, we found the cached hoard of straw, food and weatherwriter, and stocked up the black bin bag. It didn’t look at all suspicious, four people walking around deserted wasteland at 6am in the morning carrying a black bin bag. I did wonder what anyone looking out of a window from the houses across the river must have thought.
We headed into the grass towards the scrap of striped tape that marked the first trap point, where two longworth traps (one on the ground, and the other set a couple of feet up on a stake) waited.
There’s always a frisson of suspense as you approach a small mammal trap. Has it been tripped? If so, what will it contain? We had a bumper harvest that morning – 8 woodmice, 2 field voles, 2 bank voles and one fiesty pygmy shrew. But none of the animals we were really searching for: harvest mice.
As the bright November morning dawned, we were able to get a better look at what we caught. If you think that one small mammal species is much like another in temperament, you’re mistaken. As you can see from these photos, voles are pretty chilled. I didn’t get any photos of woodmice (it was too dark when we found them, and they move too quickly). The tiny pigmy shrew was my personal favourite. You’ve got to admire a creature that, though about as big as a thumb nail, decides to try to bite its captor’s hand (it’s teeth weren’t long enough the penetrate the skin, but it gave it a good go).
The check was part of Surrey Mammal Group and Surrey Wildlife Trust’s harvest mouse project. We’re trying to get fur samples from harvest mice populations in different sites in the county. These samples are then DNA tested to allow us to see how closely related they are, or whether harvest mice at different sites have very different DNA to each other. The point of this is to see how good the connectivity between sites is for wildlife. Connectivity is important, as isolated populations are vulnerable to being wiped out.
This is our third year of the project. In the first year we were able to get enough samples for the lab scientists to identify plenty of DNA markers that will allow us to compare different harvest mice populations. Last year, when we went back to survey the sites that had had lots of harvest mice the previous year, we found very few. And we’ve not had large numbers this year, either.
We repeated the survey that evening, starting and ending in the dark, and found similar numbers of woodmice, bank voles, field voles and a single pygmy shrew, but again no harvest mice. The voles decided that sitting on hands was a morning activity – in the evening it’s all about climbing onto heads. This one seemed to particularly enjoy Derek’s hair – it looked like it was planning to settle down up there. Glen and Keith also got scaled by intrepid vole explorers.
By the end of the check it was bucketing down, and I was very pleased to get home to a warming bowlful of food, prepared by Dr C.
It’s not hugely surprising we didn’t find any harvest mice at this site – it really is cut off from other harvest mouse habitats (I suspect voles and woodmice are a little less particular in the sorts of neighbourhoods they’ll live in). And, while we didn’t succeed in our aim for the checks, it was still great to see small mammals at such close quarters. And it was worth braving the elements and giving up a lie-in to have that privilege.
This is my diary of the wildlife where I live in Oxfordshire, and sometimes the places I visit. I am a 14 year old young naturalist with a passion for British wildlife, especially Badgers and Hares. I have been blogging since May 2013 and you can read my old blog posts at www.appletonwildlifediary.blogspot.co.uk