Tag Archives: Hampshire

In which I search for otters and water shrews, and find something even rarer

I may not have told you this before, but my favourite British animals are otters. I love them. They’re so good at what they do, and they look like they have fun. But I’ve never seen a Eurasian otter in the wild. So when I found myself in Hampshire with time to spare, I couldn’t resist another go at trying to see some.

Back in March I visited a couple of nature reserves where otters are frequently seen in daylight. They also contain what looks, to my inexpert eyes, like ideal water shrew habitat.  On that occasion I had no luck with either species.

This attempt felt quite different. Rather than a cold March morning, it was a warm, sunny May evening.  The vegetation had grown a lot since my previous visit, and the floods had receded so all the paths were open.

Dr C and I set out on a lap of the first lake, not entirely optimistic as a dog was running loose. Within a few minutes we came to a bridge over a stream crowded with watercress.  Soon Dr C spotted a water vole, which hid before I could join his side of the bridge.  We waited quietly, and it soon re-emerged, seemingly oblivious to our presence.

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This was only my second sight of a wild water vole, and a much better view. It was only a couple of metres from us, happily eating watercress. I managed to get some photos before it disappeared into the undergrowth.

Water vole Water vole Water vole

Dr C and I continued our lap of the lakes. Sadly there were no otters or water shrews.  But we did see more water voles, including a baby.

Water voles are delightful. They look plump and good natured, manipulating their food in little hands. You can see where Kenneth Grahame got his inspiration for Ratty’s marvellous picnics.

Water vole

We had no luck at the second nature reserve, but left feeling our evening had been well spent, getting such a good view of one of our rarest mammals.

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British Animal Challenge: Looking for otters

When Dr C Senior showed me a photo of an otter, taken in broad daylight a few miles from his house, I couldn’t resist a visit. From what I’ve read about otters, if you want to see them in daylight your best bet is to head to a Scottish island. But Hampshire is a lot more convenient for me, and apparently a family of otters is regularly seen in a nature reserve next to the noisy A303.

So, I booked a day off work, and headed to the in-laws’. Dr C Senior kindly guided me to the reserve and showed me around, pointing out the fishing pier where otters are regularly seen playing.

It was a cold but dry March morning, and there were few other people around, although apparently the otters aren’t that bothered by the presence of dogs and walkers.

Dr C Senior stuck it out for quite a while, before the lure of lunch became too pressing. I stayed on, buoyed by the possibility of seeing my favourite British animal in the wild for the first time. I also had hopes of seeing a water shrew or some amphibians, or even catch a second glimpse of a water vole. But, aside from a hurrying vole (bank or field, I am not sure which) and a few birds, animals were staying hidden that morning.

A helpful fisherman suggested that I try another nearby nature reserve, that otters and water voles frequent. So I took his advice.

This reserve looked much more promising, being quieter and wilder looking. I found some watercress beds in my initial lap of the reserve, so I was hopeful of seeing a water shrew. I also managed to spot some possible otter and water vole signs.

But luck was not on my side that day. After two hours of patient waiting, seeing nothing more exciting than a squirrel and some blackbirds I was chilled to the bone, and decided to call it a day.

It’s not very surprising that I didn’t see an otter. They have large territories, and you can’t predict which bit of their territory they’ll use on a given day.

I was a bit disappointed not to see water shrews. It looked like ideal habitat for them, based on my limited knowledge.

But it wasn’t an unpleasant way of spending the day. It made a change from the office, and all that we walking was good for me.

So you’ll have to make do with a picture of the only otter I did see that day.

Mr Otter

Barn Owls vanishing

Barn OwlLast month I was staggered to learn how bad things are for barn owls. According to the Barn Owl Trust, this year there are fewer barn owls in Britain than there have ever been. On top of this, the poor spring has meant that there have been fewer young successfully reared than usual.

Barn owls are instantly recognisable, iconic birds. When flying they are large, ghost-like white shapes in the gloom. Perched on a fence post they are neat, heart-faced birds. Their shriek is startling (no polite hoot for them).

Until I went to a talk by the Barn Owl Trust, I’d always assumed that barn owls were doing ok. I’ve had many encounters with them, both in Devon and Hampshire. But thinking about it, I don’t remember seeing any ever in Surrey, nor anywhere else in the last 2-3 years. This is very sad.

There has been a long-term decline in the numbers of barn owls in Britain since the 1930s. Barn owls are farmland birds. While, back in the 1930s, pretty much every farm had a barn owl, now only one farm in 75 is home to a barn owl. This long-term decline is probably largely due to changes in farming practices, with more grassland being intensively grazed, and silage cut twice a year, rather than grass being left to dry into hay. This has reduced the habitat for the small mammals (voles and mice) that make up the barn owl’s diet.

The number of suitable nesting sites (barns, as the name suggests) has also declined dramatically, with many barn conversions not leaving room for barn owls, and new farm buildings often not providing suitable space and access.

Poisons used to kill rodents may also be a threat to barn owls, although the evidence on this is still sketchy. What is known is that more than 90% of dead barn owls studied in 2012 contained rodent poison. What effect this has on the owls is unclear, but with exposure being so common, any problems these poisons do cause would be a large-scale threat.

On top of this long-term decline, the weather in Britain in the last few years has not been good for barn owls. Heavy snows mean the owls can’t hunt so well, meaning more die of starvation. And the poor spring this year has meant breeding has been less successful than usual.

The Barn Owl Trust is working to preserve these beautiful birds. If you would like more information about barn owl boxes, rodenticides or anything else barn owl related, I suggest you look at their website.