Tag Archives: Surrey

Dormouse box check, July 2017

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.

Sleepy dormouse
Sleepy dormouse

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.

Two sleepy juvenile dormice
Two sleepy juvenile dormice

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.

Dormouse refusing to put its tail back in the nest box
Dormouse refusing to put its tail back in the nest box

I’ve been checking dormouse boxes for seven years, but they can still surprise, entertain and delight me.

Riversearch December 2015

Once again I’d left my Riversearch survey til the last moment, so ended up squeezing it into my busy Christmas Eve. (I did get questioned by a passerby as to why I was out ‘working’ on Christmas Eve, who couldn’t quite believe that was how I choose to spend my leisure time). The weather wasn’t very tempting for a riverside stroll that morning. But rain is no excuse to put off a Riversearch survey – in fact, it may be better, as it allows you to see any runoff from fields, roads and pipes. So I donned my wellies and headed out. By the time I got out there, the rain had eased off somewhat – there were even glimpses of blue sky.

Like the rest of the country, we’ve had quite a lot of rain lately. Thankfully we’ve escaped the flooding other areas had. While the ground was boggy and the water level high, at least I could walk through the meadow – exactly two years ago I wouldn’t have been able to do that, as it was completely submerged.

Winter is always a good time to do the survey for my stretch – the nettles, himalayan balsam and other plants have died back enough to allow me to see a lot more of the river bank than usual. The main finding of interest was pollution coming from a few of the pipes in the riverbank. There was quite a lot of white foam on the river, building up in places, but that seemed to be coming from further upstream. I don’t know what it was, but definitely something to report.

Aside from that, the only other notable finding was a mystery nest, lodged a couple of feet up a sapling on the riverbank. Any ideas what might have made that?

Mystery nest
Who’d live in a nest like this?

How was 2014 for dormice in Surrey?

This article is adapted from one that I wrote for the spring/summer issue of the Surrey Dormouse Group (SDG) newsletter, and is reproduced here with their kind permission. It's based on data collected by dozens of volunteers across the county. If you would like to find out more about the work of SDG, visit their website

Last year SDG members checked a total of 7076 boxes from 18 sites. Data from each SDG box check gets reported to the National Dormouse Monitoring Programme, to feed into their national analyses – you can read about how 2014 was for dormice nationally in the Dormouse Monitor.  Here’s a summary of the data from Surrey.

How many dormice?

We saw a total of 487 dormice over 2014. That works out at a mean average of 3 dormice per 50 boxes checked, but there was quite a range of numbers seen at box checks: from 0 per 50 boxes to 27 per 50 boxes. At a third of box checks no dormice were found. The median number of dormice found per 50 boxes checked was 1, which is probably a representative average, given that a few large numbers are skewing the mean. Some sites that had quiet starts to the season saw large numbers later on. On average, we also found 2 empty dormouse nests per 50 boxes (ranging from 0 to 18).

Number of dormouse found per 50 boxes checked, Surrey, 2014
Number of dormouse found per 50 boxes checked, Surrey, 2014

When did we see them?

The earliest dormouse was a 20g torpid male, found on the 6th March, and the latest ones were 3 found at the beginning of December (that’s not to say others weren’t around earlier or later – just we weren’t checking so didn’t find them). As you can see from the graph above, average numbers were highest in August to October, and lowest in March and April.

How much did they weigh?

Females weighed slightly more on average than males (19g vs 18.7g), but this changed considerably over the course of the year, as you can see from the graph, with weights at their highest just before hibernation. The heaviest dormouse recorded was a 33g female found in October.

Average weight of dormouse found in Surrey, 2014
Average weight of dormouse found in Surrey, 2014

Other interesting features

Dormice with white tail tips were reported 36 times over the year, including a family of juveniles, all with white tail tips. There were 9 dormice with stubby tails.

Youngsters

The earliest pinkies were found on 20th July. (Pinky is a technical term describing baby dormice before they grow fur). On that same box check the earliest greys (babies that have their first coat of fur, which is much greyer than an adult) were also found. The latest pinkies were found on 25th September, and the latest greys were found on 20th October. Dormice born later in the year have more of a struggle to fatten up in time for hibernation, but those born too early in the year may struggle with their mother not being able to find enough food for herself.

The largest number of dormice found in one box was 8 (mother with young): boxes with 8 dormice were found at two sites.

Other box occupants

Apart from birds (which seem to take over a large number of boxes in spring at some sites) and invertebrates, the most common other occupant were wood mice (162 were seen, 21 of which were found in dormice nests) and yellow necked mice (29 were seen, only one of which was in a dormouse nest). There were also 12 unidentified apodemus mice (wood mice or yellow-necked mice). The rarest other box occupant was the pigmy shrew, with only 7 reported over the whole year (2 of which were in one box).

Sumo dormouse

I was buzzing all weekend thanks to a remarkable dormouse box check on Saturday. Firstly, we found five dormice – as many as we’ve seen in total for the rest of the year. All five looked in good condition. Two were clearly mums whose youngsters had mostly left the nest (although one of the litter of three we saw last month was still living with mum). Two were this year’s young, now at or near a weight that would probably see them through hibernation.

The fifth dormouse was definitely the most remarkable. It was a giant, weighing 34.5g. It looked like it was wearing a dormouse sumo costume. It’s easily the biggest dormouse I have ever seen. I am analysing data from all the Surrey Dormouse Group sites over the last five years at the moment, so was able to see how it compared. It’s the second biggest dormouse recorded: out of more than 2,000 dormice, only one was heavier (at 35g).

Sumo dormouse: 34.5g!
Sumo dormouse: 34.5g!

It’s not surprising that we had such a good month for both numbers and sizes of dormice. October tends to be the peak for numbers, as this year’s young disperse. And dormice have been busy fattening up for winter, gorging on plentiful hazelnuts. Most animals look cutest when they are small. But I think chubby dormice must be the most adorable things ever.

This time next month many of them may already be hibernating. Dormice can gain weight surprisingly quickly. Assuming it’s the same mouse, the mother we found in the same box as last month has increased from 20g to 31.5g – she’s increased her bodyweight by 58% in 28 days. She also seems to have become fiestier, managing to bite both me and one of my volunteers. It’s only the second time I’ve been bitten by a dormouse in 6 years.

The juvenile we found in a nest box by himself had taken advantage of the nest left by the dormouse we found in June. The other post-lactating female hadn’t even bothered to make a proper nest, nestling down in a thin layer of leaves on top of a bed of moss.

Dormouse who hasn't made a proper nest yet
Dormouse who hasn’t made a proper nest yet

Quite a memorable check, all in all.

Cycle races, quiet and learning to share

I left the house at 8.30am this morning, and immediately noticed something was missing. Something that I don’t usually notice at all – the background hum of traffic. Today is the Prudential RideLondon cycle race, which comes through my home town, and means the roads are all shut for most of the day. As I walked to church the main sound was a distant plane overhead, and the whir of the first few cyclists to make it this far. (By the time I was walking back from church it was another story – the streets were lined with people cheering on the cyclists who were still coming through).

The RideLondon event is a bit controversial where I live. Many people are inconvenienced by not being able to get anywhere by road for the day. Some locals enjoy the festive atmosphere, and the chance to see some of the top cyclists in the world come past their doors (I fall into that camp, even though I’m not normally a cycling fanatic). Those who haven’t noticed the numerous signs warning of road closures that have been up for the last month or so are left frustrated – we heard one driver at the end of our road talking to stewards, asking how he can get to Gatwick. I wouldn’t like to be in that situation (although at least the trains are still running). And while some businesses on the route do well out of the custom of the crowds who come to  watch the cyclists, others who aren’t on the actual route, but whose customers can’t reach them, lose out.

Once the 25,000 amateur cyclists have been through, we wait for the professionals to arrive. They do 5 laps of my town, so I get plenty of chance to see them. And the race is televised on BBC1, so the whole country gets to see the splendour of the Surrey Hills (on a day like today they look glorious).

It’s such a treat to have a day without traffic. I’d love to know what effect it has on air quality and carbon emissions. It’s made a noticeable difference to noise levels (although when the pros come through the filming helicopters and support vehicles will make up for the absence of ordinary traffic). I wish we could have a few more car-free days. Some South American cities have them regularly, but I can’t see them taking off here anytime soon.

The Surrey Hills have always attracted plenty of cyclists (weird people who ride up hills for pleasure), but the numbers have noticeably increased since it was first announced the 2012 Olympic Road Race would come through the area. Every hobby cyclist wants to test themselves of the route that Wiggins, Cavendish and the rest competed on. That does lead to some conflicts, particularly on narrow country lanes. On a sunny weekend it can take much longer to get anywhere on the narrow lanes round here, as there are so many cyclists out and about. And, while most are considerate, there are a few who take unnecessary risks, zooming round blind bends in the middle of the road.

Olympic cyclists come through the Surrey Hills
Olympic cyclists come through the Surrey Hills

As I’m not a cyclist myself, I don’t know how much riders get to enjoy the views, and being amidst the woods and hills of this area. Does it all rush by in too much of a blur? Or do they get to experience the same feeling of communing with nature that I do when I’m walking? I think everyone should spend time enjoying nature, and if cycling is what gets them to do it, and seeing the pros race through our beautiful countryside inspires a few more people to give it a go (or even just come and visit), then that’s a good thing. If that means that next time I’m driving to my dormouse site it takes me an extra five then I can live with that. I just need to learn to share what I have the privilege to enjoy.

 

February 2015 Riversearch

My December Riversearch was uneventful, with little to report. And not much has changed since then. No news is perhaps a good thing – there weren’t any obvious signs of pollution or invasive species (although invasive plants mostly won’t be obvious at this time of year, and I didn’t search for signal crayfish or quagga mussels). And while the river level was quite high (the stepping stones were well covered), it wasn’t flooded.

The River Mole in February
The River Mole in February
Can you spot the stepping stones?
Can you spot the stepping stones?

There were some signs of spring, with a few clumps of snowdrops scattered around, and wild garlic leaves appearing. Bird song filled the air, but the trees are still bare.

Signs of spring - snowdrops
Signs of spring – snowdrops
Signs of spring - catkins
Signs of spring – catkins
Signs of spring - wild garlic leaves
Signs of spring – wild garlic leaves

Given there was so little to report, it’s a bit hard to motivate myself to get round to returning the data. But, even this unexciting result is important to monitoring the health of the River Mole. So I really should send the results back in. And I will. Sometime. Maybe next weekend.

Riversearch has been going for around 18 months now, and they’ve refined the forms we use, to make the paperwork quicker and easier once you’ve done the initial search. (The basic info about a stretch of river doesn’t change that much from month to month – bridges tend not to be too temporary, and land use change is not that rapid).

One of the new things they ask for now is information about the wildlife we see along the way. Now, this is much more to my taste (and skills) than describing the geography of the rivers – rills, bars etc. So, I was pleased to come across some deer prints in the wood by the river. The prints were very small (perhaps muntjac or a small female of a larger type of deer). So, while I don’t have anything exciting to report about the river, at least I can submit the deer print photos, to be added to the county database.

Deer (muntjac?) print
Deer (muntjac?) print

My new dormouse site

Now spring is here, my thoughts have turned to dormice. While it’ll probably be a while yet before they emerge, it’s time to make sure everything is ready for them. I got my dormouse licence at the end of last year, so this is my first season with a site of my own.

In preparation for the annual box clean, I visited my site last week, to work out where it is, and check I can find the boxes. The site is part of an estate owned by the National Trust. There are 30 boxes up at the moment (most dormouse monitoring sites have 50), but there’s only been one box check so far, in early December last year, where several active dormice were found.

My new dormouse site

Apart from dormice, they also get several types of deer (including red deer), foxes, badgers and other woodland mammals. On my recce I saw a woodpecker. The wood is still wearing its winter mourning, so it’s hard to tell what it will be like once the plants begin to wake up again.

A fallen tree marks the edge of my dormouse site
A fallen tree marks the edge of my dormouse site

I am excited, but also a bit nervous about being responsible for a dormouse site. With it being a new site, I’m not sure what to expect. Will there be stinging nettles as tall as me in the summer? Will lots of bumblebees decide dormouse boxes are a great place to nest? Do they get yellow necked mice or just woodmice? Will I see an elusive red deer? What about bluebells and blue tits? I’m looking forward to finding out.

Bats of Nutfield Marsh

Bat detector and ID chartThose of you who’ve been following this blog for a while will know that I’ve set myself the challenge of seeing every species of British animal in the wild. One group that are proving particularly tricky at the moment are bats. There are 16 species of bat resident in the UK, 14 of which live in my home county of Surrey, so it really shouldn’t be that hard. I have a bat detector, an identification chart and an app on my phone that lets me hear recordings of different bats, as played through a heterodyne bat detector. But despite all this, I’m still not making much progress. Lots of bats sound very similar to each other, and live in similar habitats, making distinguishing them hard.

In an effort to deal with this, I thought I’d get some expert help. So Dr C and I went along to a Surrey Wildlife Trust bat walk on Nutfield Marsh, led by someone who knows their bats. It was a beautiful summers day, and the clear skies meant it didn’t get dark til late. A group of around 30 people (including lots of kids) gathered in the car park, watching flocks of ring-necked parakeets. Nutfield Marsh is a nature reserve on the site of former sand pits (not the sort kids play in). It’s now been transformed into a wonderful mix of ponds, lakes, grasslands and woods. Ideal bat habitat, and home to 5 different sorts of bats (Common and Soprano Pipistrelles, Daubenton’s, Serotine and Noctules).

A common pipistrelle bat weighs about the same as a 2p coin
A common pipistrelle bat weighs about the same as a 2p coin

 Armed with bat detectors we wandered round the reserve, and as the dusk deepened we picked up our first bats – common pipistrelles. Common pipistrelles, as their name suggests, are the most widespread and numerous of Britain’s bats. They’re also one of the smallest, weighing the same as a 2p coin.

While it’s always good to see and hear bats, I had already crossed them off my list in May, so I was really hoping to see some new species.

We headed to the largest of the lakes, and waited as the last hint of light faded, hoping to see Daubenton’s bats feeding on the insects that flitted just above the surface of the water. We did see a few more bats, but the detectors revealed them to be common pipistrelles. Eventually, the call of bed could no longer be ignored, and we headed back to the cars.

It was a little disappointing not to see some new bats, but it was very pleasant to take a stroll round Nutfield Marsh in the cool of the evening. It’s inspiring to see how an industrial landscape can be transformed into a haven for wildlife.

Box Hill and The Lark Ascending

My walk on Box Hill the other day was lovely. The sun was shining and the slope alive with butterflies. But I felt that something was missing. There was no skylark song.

I recommend you listen to this YouTube video while reading the rest of this post. You’ll thank me for it!

Skylarks are plain-looking brown birds, smaller and duller to the eye than starlings. But to hear them sing is to have your ear filled with molten silver, and your thoughts lifted to the heavens.

Patrik Åberg, XC27004. Accessible at http://www.xeno-canto.org/27004.
Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0

Skylarks are ground nesting birds, found mostly in farmland. A few years ago we visited Lundy, which seemed to be bursting with skylarks. Elsewhere in Britain skylarks are a rarer sight. Their numbers halved in the 1990s, and continue to decline.

The main reasons behind the plummet in skylark numbers seems to be changes in farming practices. The move from spring to winter sowing of crops, overgrazing and a shift from hay making to silage have dramatically reduced the habitat available for skylarks to breed in.

I missed skylarks on Box Hill because it felt like the right sort of habitat for them. But I think there was also a sub-conscious expectation that there would be skylarks there, because of its links to skylarks in poetry and literature.

The 19th century writer George Meredith lived on Box Hill, and wrote the poem The Lark Ascending that inspired one of my favourite pieces of English music, by Ralph Vaughan Williams. Vaughan Williams lived in Dorking, the town Box Hill protects and shelters. His The Lark Ascending is said to describe the English landscape in musical form, as well as capturing something of the soaring beauty of the lark’s song. While I love this piece, I hope it isn’t the closest our next generation gets to hearing skylarks.

Chalk grassland: Europe’s rainforest?

Sometimes places that look barren or dull can be full of diverse wildlife, on closer inspection. I am a bit of a tree fan, so it’s always been the woods of Box Hill, with their rare box trees, that have excited me. While the grassy slopes of the hill have appealed to me aesthetically, I assumed that the real wildlife was elsewhere.

The grassy slope to the summit of Box Hill
The grassy slope to the summit of Box Hill

A recent walk up the hill on a sunny day made me suspect I might be wrong.  What, from afar, looks like boring old grass, is actually a huge variety of plant species, including many different flowers. And these plants were buzzing with insect life.

An orchid and moth
Chalk grasslands are home to a huge range of plant and insect species

A bit of reading up on the subject has confirmed that my earlier assumptions were well wide of the mark. Chalk grassland, grazed by sheep and unfertilised, is one of the UK’s richest for plant and insect diversity. The poor, thin soil, and regular grazing, means no single species can dominate.  A square metre of chalk grassland may have up to 40 different plant species, leading to some calling it Europe’s answer to the rainforest.

The chalk grassland slopes of Box Hill
The chalk grassland slopes of Box Hill, looking towards the woods

This diversity of plants gives food and shelter to a wide range of insects.  41 different types of butterfly have been found on Box Hill, including some of the rarest in the UK. I didn’t even know there were that many butterfly species in Britain.

Chalk grassland is in itself quite rare. It is an internationally important habitat and is a priority in the UK Biodiversity Action Plan.Besides the North and South Downs there aren’t many other large areas of chalk grassland left. Much has been lost in the last 50 years due to changes in farming, (intensification including use of fertiliser and over grazing), encroachment of scrub where grassland isn’t grazed, and development of land for other purposes. Only 1% of the Surrey Hills has remnant chalk grassland cover.

Looking south from Box Hill
Looking south from Box Hill

There’s been quite a lot of controversy locally about a recent Court of Appeal judgement allowing some chalk grassland to be turned into an exclusive golf club. Neatly manicured, fertilised and herbicided greens and fairways are deserts compared to natural chalk grassland.

While it may not have the immediate feel of the wild that you get in woods or at the coast, chalk grasslands are rich habitats, and need protection. Losing chalk grassland means losing a unique and fragile ecosystem, which we will be poorer without.

Looking from Box Hill towards Dorking
Looking from Box Hill towards Dorking