Winter is a quiet period for dormousers. The dormice are hibernating, so we wash our dusters, enter our data onto the national database, and put our feet up. Here in Surrey we’ve not quite been hibernating – 30 of us met up at the British Wildlife Centre for a meeting to celebrate our achievements from last year, and discuss plans for 2016. And, of course, to see the wonderful collection of animals they have there.
It’s always good to have an excuse to visit the British Wildlife Centre. The runaway show stealers for me were the otters (as always). It wasn’t great weather for photography (very little light), but here are a few of the more acceptable snaps I took.
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.
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.
It’s easy to ascribe human characteristics or behaviours to wild creatures. It helps us to relate to them. Books that anthropomophicise wild animals, like the wonderful Wind in the Willows, can also kindle an interest in nature that may lead on to a life-long love. I put the start of my own interest in nature down, at least in part, to Kenneth Graham and Colin Dann. Patrick Barkham, in Badgerlands, attributes a change in attitudes to badgers in large part to the gruff, unsociable but dependable Mr Badger of Wind in the Willows.
I have to admit getting sentimental about wildlife, particularly creatures I see every day, and give names to. It’s hard to resist talking down to the dormice we find during our box checks. Their cuteness sometimes leads me to forget that they are wild creatures, adapted to the life they lead and part of a whole ecosystem that has evolved together. Anthropomorphicising wild creatures can blind us to a deeper understanding of wildlife, and the forces that drive their behaviour.
Programmes like Springwatch get us rooting for individuals. Will the chicks survive to fledge? Watching the process happen in our own nest box was even more engaging. But it’s easy to forget that everything in nature is connected. A sparrowhawk catching one of ‘your’ garden birds is a mini tragedy, unless you are the sparrowhawk or its chicks.
This may make me sound heartless, but part of what I love in nature is the way it all fits together. I like that nature is red in tooth and claw. I like watching the daily battle for survival between predator and prey. Sometimes I pick a side (often the predator, I’m afraid – I don’t know what that says about me).
But I don’t think this means there’s never a case for intervention. In fact, humans have already intervened so much in the ecosystem (eg. introducing non-native invasive species like mink; destroying habitat) that if we are to protect our native wildlife further intervention is needed. And not all human interventions of the past have been negative – some wild creatures have thrived in carefully managed (rather than neglected) woodlands, or would cease to exist if chalk meadows were allowed to return to scrub.
A purely sentimental love for wildlife also prevents us from communicating effectively with policymakers and others who aren’t interested in nature for nature’s sake. We need to be able to engage with them in a language they understand (economics and hard facts) if we are to adequately defend our wildlife.
Sentimentality is great for getting people to care for our wildlife, but to protect it we need to move beyond that to something based on understanding as well as emotion.
Having said that, even the most hardened naturalist deserves the odd “that’s so cute” moment…
This is my diary of the wildlife where I live in Oxfordshire, and sometimes the places I visit. I am a 16 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