Tag Archives: reptiles

British Animal Challenge: February 2015 update

I have to admit that I have spent most of February indoors, so far. So no new animals to tick off my list this year. But I haven’t been idle – I’ve been plotting the rest of the year.

My focus for March will be amphibians and reptiles. I’m not planning any trips away from home, so will search for those that can be seen in Surrey. Luckily that’s most of the British species.

Early spring is a good time to look for amphibians, as their focus is on mating. And reptiles have to spend more time basking in the open, so will hopefully be easier to see than later in the year.

Surrey has some fine reptile habitat, with a mix of woodland and heaths. I’m more familiar with the woods, so this is a good excuse to explore beyond my usual territory.

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British Animal Challenge: May Update

May has been the most successful month so far for my British Animal Challenge. I’ve seen two new species of amphibians: smooth newts and great crested newts. I’ve also ticked off common pipistrelle bats from my list as well.

More generally, I’ve seen quite a few species that were already ticked off my list, but it’s always good to see them again:

  • Adders
  • Slow worms
  • Woodmice
  • Roe deer
  • Common frog
  • Dormouse
  • Water voles

Sadly I haven’t managed to cross any new reptile species off my list, although I do have a plan. I also failed in my second attempt to see water shrews, but I’ve found out a bit more about where I could see them. I’ve also heard rumours of natterjack toads in Surrey, which I’ll have to investigate more.

So, what are my target species for June? Well, my new bat detector should be arriving any day now, so I’m keen to try that out and see some more types of bats. I’m also going to be keeping my eyes peeled for moles, as this is the time of year when they could be dispersing from where they were born. I’m also hoping to see a yellow-necked mouse.

Alien invaders 2: Pheasants

Pheasants are splendid looking birds, and very common in many parts of the country. But despite their prevalence, they’re not native to the UK.

While pheasants look good, they are definitely not the sharpest sandwich in the picnic – ask anyone who has driven behind a pheasant running desperately along a road for half a mile before it remembers it can fly over the hedge.

Pheasants have been around in the UK for around 1000 years, so are well established. But while it is illegal to release most non-native species into the wild,  pheasants are an exception (under licence) and around 35,000,000 are released each year in Britain.

The reason for this is shooting. Shooting is big business (or at least rich business), generating around £1.6bn each year (not all of which is from pheasant shoots).

There’s quite a lot of controversy over the impact that the release of so many pheasants each year has. A lot of controversy, but not a lot of solid evidence.

On the plus side, around £250m gets spent each year on habitat management for shooting, which some native species benefit from as well.

On the down side, 35m pheasants take a lot of feeding. Pheasants are omnivorous, and have been known to eat reptiles as well as  grain and anything else they can fit in their beaks. While little is known about how big the impact is nationally, for scarce reptiles this could be a big problem.

Pheasants also damage crops, although the law means that the person who released the pheasant isn’t responsible for the damage.

And then, as I mentioned, pheasants haven’t much road sense, and cause road accidents (although the government doesn’t keep a record of how many).

While shooting does invest in habitat management, there are less benign impacts on British wildlife. In recent years Naturally England has issued licenses for (native) raptors’ eggs to be destroyed to protect (non-native) game birds. And that’s the legal stuff that goes on – there are regular reports of birds of prey being killed illegally, probably for the same reason.

I think more reliable evidence is needed to accurately assess the impact of pheasants on the environment, and identify ways to minimise the impact on our scarcer reptiles and raptors. But this is unlikely to happen when the shooting lobby has so much influence over the government.

Reptile walk

I’m ideally placed to see the six species of reptiles that are native to Britain, as all of them can be found in Surrey. (I’ll have to go further afield to see some of the non-native ones that now live in the wild in Britain). So last week I joined Surrey Wildlife Trust rangers Jamel Guenioui and James Herd for a stroll around Rodborough Common to see what reptiles were out and about.

Rodborough Common is ideal reptile habitat, with heathland surrounded by woods. The only thing missing is waterside areas favoured by grass snakes.

The weather wasn’t brilliant for reptile watching, as it was mostly overcast, and a cool 10 degrees when we set off. But it did brighten up and warm to 16 degrees by the end of the walk.

We followed a transect of the common that is used by Surrey Amphibians and Reptiles Group in their regular surveys of the site, checking under sheets of corrugated tin and roofing felt left in strategic locations, and trying to spot creatures basking in the open as well.

Despite the overcast conditions we did pretty well. Quite a few of the refuga had slow worms underneath, and we spotted a few large adders basking in the open.

An adder basking on the heath
A female adder basking on the heath
A slow worm under a refuge of corrugated tin
A slow worm under a refuge of corrugated tin
More slow worms under a corrugated tin refuge
More slow worms under a corrugated tin refuge

Reptiles aren’t the only creatures who enjoy the warmth of the refuga. A few had woodmice underneath, and a lot had been taken over by ants,  particularly wood ants.

It was good to see reptiles up close, and for longer than the usual fleeting glimpses I get. While I didn’t manage to tick any new species off my list, hopefully the practice of spotting them out in the open will help me to see more in the future.

We also got to see roe deer roaming the common, and hear a cuckoo (a rare sound these days). It was a very informative and enjoyable way of spending the morning.

The walk was one of a series run by Surrey Wildlife Trust in various locations across the county. Their website has details of future walks, focusing on different sorts of wildlife.

British Animal Challenge: April Update

April has been a bit of a mixed month for me in terms of the British Animal Challenge. Still no luck with amphibians (apart from a few tadpoles), despite dreams of giant toads.

The reptiles course I attended will hopefully help me spot lizards and snakes. As late April and early May are meant to be the best times to see reptiles, I had hoped to see some along the 35 miles of South West Coast Path I walked last week. But I didn’t spot a single scale. Maybe the steep hills distracted me.

I did, however, manage to tick one new species off my list: the Exmoor pony. Not the hardest to spot – they’re pretty large compared to most of the species on my list, and not too shy either. But they are limited to a fairly small (and scenic) geographical area.  I’ll write a bit more about them in the next week or so.

So, what are my plans for May? Well, reptiles are top of my list,  trying to put my new knowledge to use. I’m also hoping to do some newt surveying, and maybe have another go at looking for otters and water shrews.

British reptiles

While they’re not everyone’s cup of tea, reptiles are fascinating. They are like miniature dinosaurs, hidden in our woods and heaths. It would be quite easy to go years without seeing one. Last week I attended a training session that will hopefully help me get better at spotting them.

The training was organised by the Surrey Amphibians and Reptiles Group (SARG), designed to introduce people to Britain’s native reptiles, and how to survey them. (Incidentally, if you were surveying reptiles, what would you ask them?)

Britain is home to 3 types of snake (grass snakes, adders and smooth snakes) and 3 lizards (common lizards, slow worms and sand lizards). In addition there are small populations of non-native reptiles including red-eared terrapins and aesculapian snakes in certain parts of the country.

Surveys of reptiles are important for helping to inform land management, and other efforts to protect reptiles.  SARG have an excellent website which allows owners of survey sites to see up-to-date information about where reptiles are on their land.

I have yet to see a reptile in Surrey, but have seen adders and lizards a few times along the South West Coast Path. We’re just coming up to the best time of year to see reptiles. I’m looking forwards to testing my new knowledge, and seeing if I can spot some in the next few weeks.

If you’re interested in reptiles you might like to look at the ARG website, which contains details about local reptiles groups across the country.

British Animal Challenge: March Update

Spring is definitely here now, and lots of animals seem to be busy.  I’ve also had quite a busy month too, with both wildlife and music.
The good news is that I’ve managed to see one of the rarer mammals on my British Animal Challenge list: the water vole.
I’ve had less luck with reptiles and amphibians. The reptile walk I was planning on doing has been rescheduled to May.  I have looked for frogs and toads, but only managed to see a dead one. I’m not sure if my lack of success is down to looking in the wrong place (there were lots of big fish in the pond I looked in, which isn’t great for breeding amphibians) or wrong time (day time instead of night) or a combination of both.

Since I’ve seen lots of pictures of mating frogs on Twitter, I’m going to give it another try, hopefully somewhere more suitable.

My other targets for April are Exmoor ponies and, if I’m really lucky, an otter.
I’ll let you know how I get on.