Tag Archives: Wildlife

Top 10 Christmas Present Ideas for Wildlife Enthusiasts

The wonderful Transition Dorking’s Golden Ticket event has got me thinking about Christmas shopping. Here’s a list of my top 10 present ideas for the wildlife enthusiast in your life. Some of them I already have, so can vouch for their brilliance. Others are things I’ve had an eye on for a while, hint, hint!

1) Swiss Army Champ knife: no nature explorer should be without a Swiss Army knife, and this one is all singing, all dancing. I’ve had mine for a couple of years, and can vouch for its robustness and versatility. My one has sawn off tree branches, cut wire to repair nest boxes, removed a tick from a dormouse, prised open paint tins, helped identify which small creatures have opened hazel nuts and performed numerous other essential tasks. My superhero name would be Swiss Army Wife. The only thing that could improve it would be a torch (which I’ve added to mine via the ring). It’s comforting knowing that, should I ever have to remove a stone from a horses hoof, I’m well equipped. Don’t just take my word for it – Simon King swears by his too!

2) Motion-triggered infrared trail camera – this one’s a bit pricier, but very exciting. We didn’t know we had hedgehogs or foxes visiting our garden until we got one of these. Most can be set to take stills or film, and should have a way of adjusting the focus.

3) Animal tracks kit – this is marketed as a stocking filler for kids, but who doesn’t secretly yearn to be a wildlife Sherlock Holmes? It’s on my Christmas list!

4) Camera bird box – give your loved one the tools to run their own Springwatch. We’ve been very impressed with the quality of the camera on ours, and while our bluetits have yet to get their youngsters as far as fledging, it’s still been fascinating to follow their progress each day. Plus when the nest box is not in use you can use the camera for other projects.

5) Mammal tunnel – more wildlife detective gear! Following on the theme of number 3, this simple set-up can help reveal which mammals make use of your garden. I think it would be a good project to do with a child (although don’t expect to find hedgehogs in winter!) or the young at heart. I enjoyed trying ours out, and if your loved one already has a bird box camera it can easily be rigged up (using gaffer tape) in the tunnel.

6) Paramo waterproof trousers – another expensive one, I’m afraid. But for anyone who spends a lot of time out in the Great British weather, these are an excellent choice. Not only do they keep the water out, but they are breathable and well ventilated, so you don’t end up with steamy legs. And they are comfortable enough to wear as normal trousers (rather than over-trousers), so you can just put them on before you set off, and not have to wrestle to get them on over your boots half way up a cliff when it starts raining. Having dry legs makes the outdoors a lot pleasanter on a rainy day.

7) Wildlife books – For the stormy days when not even good waterproofs are enough to persuade you away from the fire, a good selection of wildlife books is essential. General guides are useful for identifying animals, or working out where to see them. As a good, concise guide with plenty of pictures I would recommend the Collins Complete Guide to British Animals For a more weighty tome filled with high quality scholarship Mammals of the British Isles can’t be beaten. Hugh Warwick’s The Beauty in the Beast is an inspiring read, and the British Natural History series is good. On my Christmas list this year is Badgerlands by Patrick Barkham and the new edition of Otters by Paul Chanin.

8) Camera bird feeding station – If your loved one already has a bird box camera, this feeding station can make use of the camera when it’s not spring. I haven’t tried it, but it’s on my list.

9) A hand lens (or magnifying glass) – Hand lenses are very useful for examining things close up. It can help you distinguish what sort of mouse has been nibbling a nut, whose fur has been caught on barbed wire, and give you a better view into the world of insects. Another important tool in the wildlife detective’s kit. Just the pipe and deerstalker hat to go!

10) Courses – there’s so much to learn about wildlife, and good as books and films may be, they can’t rival getting out in the wild with an expert. I’ve been on lots run by Surrey Wildlife Trust and can recommend them. I’ve also had a couple of very enjoyable photography days at the British Wildlife Centre. Other Wildlife Trusts, the PTES, the Mammal Society and the Field Studies Council all run a selection as well – have a look to see if there are any that might inform and inspire your loved one.

I hope this list provides a bit of inspiration. What would you have on your list of gift ideas for wildlife lovers?

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Surely chopping down trees can’t be good for nature?

It’s counter-intuitive, chopping down healthy trees in the name of woodland conservation. Walking around the woods, and stumbling across a new clearing surrounded by 6ft high-visibility plastic fencing doesn’t exactly give you a glow of seeing nature at its best. So I can understand why the grumpy dog-walker was so upset by the work the Wildlife Trust had done in one of the woods I regularly visit. But despite appearances, this work is vital for the wildlife that lives in the wood.

While we think of our woodlands as wild places, humans have played a big role in making them what they are. When the need for wood as fuel, or for ship-building, was greater, many of our woodlands would have been managed in some way, for example coppicing. Coppicing is where every few years trees and shrubs are cut down to ground level, to allow vigorous regrowth. Coppicing can help trees live longer, and crucially allow light into woodlands.

Without management of some kind our woods would soon go from beautiful wildlife havens filled with birdsong and bluebells in spring, to deep, dark, silent places reminiscent of troubling fairy tales. When trees grow too big, they prevent light reaching the understory (lower-growing plants), so these plants disappear, along with the insects, birds and animals that depend on them for food (like the dormouse).

So that explains why the trees were cut down. But why the ugly fencing? The fencing is needed to keep deer and bunnies out. Deer have a voracious appetite, and would quickly eat the new shoots coming from the coppiced trees, preventing them from re-growing properly. Once the coppiced trees are big enough, the fences can come down to let everything wander freely through the coppiced area.

So chopping down some trees (done not too much, nor to frequently) can help to ensure our woods remain how we like to think of them, bursting with life of many kinds. While the work might not be pretty in the short term, it’s essential.

The badger cull: an ‘evidence to policy’ perspective

Lots has already been written about the badger cull. There’s no dearth of emotive responses to it online. If you’ve visited my blog before, you’ll probably have picked up that I love wildlife. What you may not know is that, in my day job, I work on randomised controlled trials. More specifically, I work on translating the evidence we get from trials into policy and practice. So I’m trying to write this post with my ‘evidence to policy’ hat on.

Randomised controlled trials are the most reliable way of finding out if an intervention works. This short film explains why randomised controlled trials are important.

Outside of medicine, it’s rare for proper randomised controlled trials to be conducted to test if an intervention works. So the fact that a trial was conducted to test whether badger culling reduces bovine TB is a big deal. It means we have high quality evidence about the efficacy of badger culling.

So what did the Randomised Badger Cull Trial (RBCT) find?
The trial found that after 4 years of culling, bovine TB in cattle was reduced by 23% in the cull areas, but increased by 25% on the land less than 2km from the cull zone. It also found that localised reactive culls (where badgers are culled only after an outbreak of bovine TB) actually increased bovine TB in cattle.

Does this mean the current badger cull will help reduce bovine TB?
While it might initially seem that the evidence from the trial supports the current cull, it’s actually much more complicated. When working out whether the results are generalisable, (will apply in a different setting to the original research) we need to consider whether the intervention being used now is the same as that used in the trial.

In the RBCT badgers were culled by being trapped in cages then shot. This method is expensive, but it reduces the chances of badgers being missed, or being wounded and then escaping. The current cull is looking at free shooting, which hasn’t been trialled, and might not be so effective at killing badgers.

The proportion of badgers that are culled within an area is also important. In the trial, 70% of badgers in cull areas were killed. If the proportion killed is lower, it doesn’t simply mean there will be less reduction in bovine TB. This is because culling causes badgers to scatter further afield than they would otherwise (this is called perturbation), which, if they are infected with TB may actually result in increased transmission to cattle (as was found in the reactive cull areas, and those around the cull zone).

That’s why the pilot culls are important: we need to know whether free shooting is effective at killing enough badgers to make it likely that there may be a reduction in TB in cattle. Both pilot sites (Somerset and Gloucestershire) have been unable to kill the required proportion of badgers, and extensions to the cull periods have been applied for. The pilots have proven that free shooting cannot kill enough badgers quickly enough. This raises the risk that the culls may actually increase perturbation and therefore bovine TB.

What else needs to be considered when thinking about translating trial evidence into policy?

Cost-effectiveness RBCT found it wasn’t cost-effective. That’s why in the current cull they decided to go for free shooting rather than the more expensive trap and shoot used in the trial. The calculations were that it might be cost effective with this cheaper method. However, with the costs of policing the pilot estimated to run into millions, this now lookes unlikely. This is exacerbated by the apparent failure of free shooting to kill enough badgers. Failing to reach the target proportion of badgers culled increases the risk of the cull causing perturbance, which could increase bovine TB. To tackle this, there are reports that hundreds of cages have been brought in. This will increase the costs of the cull, and may well mean any benefits are outweighed by the monetary costs.

Feasibility: as well as considering whether an intervention is effective and cost-effective, policymakers need to consider whether it is feasible to implement it at the required scale and quality. The necessity of extending the length of the pilot culls would perhaps indicate that it is less feasible than anticipated.

Acceptability: clearly, given the keeness of the NFU to introduce badger culls, the intervention is acceptable to many farmers. It is equally clear that the measure is unacceptable to many in the general public, as evidenced by the number of signatures on petitions against the cull, and active protests around the country. It doesn’t look like a compromise is likely to be possible.

Need: bovine TB is a major problem, costing the UK £90m last year. Farmers and DEFRA argue that this means something must be done. However, it doesn’t make sense to argue that because something must be done we must do something that is likely to be ineffective (and probably harmful to the cattle who we are aiming to protect), and where the monetary benefits are outweighed by the monetary costs. We need to find ways to tackle bovine TB, but that doesn’t mean we should ignore the evidence on the likelihood of effectiveness and costs of any strategy.

Risk: a first principle of medical interventions is ‘first, do no harm’. The scientists who carried out the RBCT have come out strongly against the cull, saying it is not supported by the evidence, and is more likely to do harm to cattle than good.
Wiping out large numbers of badgers is likely to have effects on other animal species as well. We have to be careful when messing with the natural foodchain, as changes in the numbers of one species affect many other species. Reduced competition from badgers may well lead to an increase in other species, such as foxes, who aren’t too popular with many farmers either.

Ethics: badgers are protected by law. They are living creatures. One of the aims of the pilot cull was to assess the humaneness of free shooting as a method of killing badgers. It has now been admitted that it is unlikely to be able to tell us this. There is even talk of gassing of badgers in their sets, despite this having been outlawed 3 decades ago for being inhumane.

If we, as a society, are consciously going to wipe out large numbers of any of our native species, we need to be very sure it will have the effect we want. I believe the current evidence does not stack up. The cull is unlikely to significantly lower incidence of bovine TB, may actually increase it, and will cost more than the benefits are worth. We need to tackle bovine TB, but this is not the way.

Only connect: children and nature

This week the RSPB launched a report about children’s connection with nature. This looked at empathy for creatures, having a sense of oneness with nature, having a sense of responsibility for the environment and enjoyment of nature. According to a survey of 1,200 children from the UK, conducted as part of the research, only one in five children had a good connection to nature. If you would like to see how connected you are with nature, you can take the survey here.

Being connected with nature is important for all of us. Previous work done by the RSPB has suggested that spending time in nature is good for us both mentally and physically. But it’s also really important that children have a good connection with nature, as if they don’t value it then they are not going to look after it when they are older.

Reading about this report made me think back to my own childhood, and try and work out why I became interested in nature. I can’t think of a damascene experience, but a few early memories do stand out.

Frogs and slow worms
I remember spending lots of time playing in the garden when I was young, chasing frogs and finding slow worms. I was surprised a few years ago, when Fat Cat brought in a frog, how hesitant I was about picking it up. I certainly had none of that squeamishness when I was a child!

Acorn treasure
The infant school I went to used the park as a playground. There were some magnificent oaks in the park, and I remember each year gathering acorns as treasure. Green ones still in their cups were the ones I prized most. All these years later the sight of an oak tree laden with acorns still thrills me, and I often can’t resist gathering a few acorns.

Wildlife Watch
When I was a bit older my mother’s godmother bought me membership of Wildlife Watch (the Wildlife Trusts’ club for children). I remember a brilliant weekend on Dartmoor, learning to identify antiseptic moss, dambusting, visiting a badger rehabilitation centre, and going for a midnight walk on the moors.

Reading animal stories

I was always an avid reader, and I think the animal stories I read as a child played an important part in getting me interested in wildlife. I’m sure some experts look down on anthropomorphicised animals in children’s books, but I think beautiful stories like the Brambly Hedge books, Wind in the Willows, and later the Animals of Farthing Woods and Duncton Woods can help children learn to love wildlife and nature.

Nature is fascinating and beautiful and disgusting enough to capture the imagination of any child, given a chance. I’m determined to help my god daughter and nephew to grow up connected to nature. I want to give them a chance to experience the wonder and joy of exploring our natural world. I’m not sure where to start, but I have a few ideas.

Were you connected to nature as a child? What got you interested in wildlife?

Amateur ecology

Over the last few years I’ve been doing quite a lot of reading about wildlife, as well as going on courses. One of the biggest surprises I’ve had is there’s so much we don’t know, even about some of our most familiar species. For example, we don’t really know what water voles do all winter, or where basking sharks go. Linked to the realisation of how much we don’t know about our wildlife, is the discovery that normal people, like you and me, can make a meaningful contribution to scientific research about wildlife.

The other day I read, in Hugh Warwick’s book The Beauty in the Beast, about Denis Summers-Smith. It was inspirational. Denis is a mechanical engineer and an amateur birdwatcher, who has written five books and over forty scientific papers on the house sparrow. He has discovered many things about house sparrows, including that they mate for life. And all this has been done in his spare time…

For those of us not quite ready to write a book based on our own discoveries, there are many citizen science projects that rely on the contributions of hundreds (or thousands) of volunteers to gather data from across the country. The commitment and expertise involved varies considerably.

For example, each year in January the RSPB run the Big Garden Birdwatch. Almost 590,000 people took part in it in 2013. This involves spending an hour counting the different types of birds that come into your garden on a specific weekend. From this, they can analyse the data from across the country, and spot any significant changes in the bird population. This is important to inform conservation work.

Many other organisations run similar surveys. This BBC Nature article contains a good list.

At the other end of the spectrum, the National Dormouse Monitoring Programme is rather more indepth, requiring trained and licensed volunteers to carry out box checks each month (except over winter). The data collected from this programme is providing new insights into these lovely creatures. At a dormouse conference I attended a couple of years ago, it was very exciting to hear scientific presentations based on data that I helped (in a very small way) to collect. We now know much more about this species than we did before the programme started.

Like many girls of my generation, I gave up studying science after I finished my GCSEs, despite getting my best grades in science and maths. I didn’t think science was for me. I didn’t realise how exciting science could be, and the range of things it could involve. It has been thrilling to learn, somewhat belatedly, that science is for me, and I can contribute to finding answers to questions about our native wildlife. These answers may help us better protect our beautiful and vulnerable creatures, for this generation and those to come.

How to build a mini pond

Frog
Frog

As a kid, I loved the pond in my parents’ garden. It was brimming with frogs and newts (and leeches). My brother and I spent many happy hours catching frogs (the tiny, just-got-legs ones were the easiest to catch, and the cutest – poor little froggies being chased by curious kids). So when I finally got a garden of my own, I was determined to build one.

Building a pond is a great way of increasing the value of your garden to wildlife. It attracts invertebrates, amphibians (who eat slugs – horay!), and can be a vital water source for birds and mammals if it’s designed well. As I mentioned in my first post, our garden is rather small, and since Dr C objected to me turning the whole lawn into a pond, I had to content myself with a mini-pond. But even a tiny pond can be really valuable to wildlife.

Living in England’s equivalent to the Champagne region, the obvious container for our pond was half an old wine barrel, obtained from our local vineyard. Old tin baths, belfast sinks and other similar containers can also make good mini-ponds.

To make it easier for hedgehogs and frogs to access, we decided to recess it, so the top was about level with the decking. Dr C valiantly got on with the digging while I tried to clean up the barrel. After several scrub-outs, the water was still turning wine red, so as we didn’t want drunk frogs, we decided to line it with pond liner.

Once the pond was in place, we used old bricks and stones to create different levels within the pond. This is important so frogs and hedgehogs can easily climb out, and birds have a shallow bit to bathe in. When we had the landscaping sorted, we put the pond liner over the top and stapled the edges to the top of the barrel so they didn’t move.

Creating different levels in the pond
Creating different levels in the pond

We added a couple of handfuls of pond compost, and then filled it with water from our water butt (if you’re using tap water, you have to let it rest for 24 hours so all the chlorine can evaporate off, before adding any plants or creatures).

Picking plants for a small pond can be a bit of a challenge, as you need to find something that won’t spread too much. We managed to find a dwarf water lily for surface cover (most water lilies like to be planted quite deep), and then picked a couple of native oxygenating plants plus a small iris for the edge. Waterside Nursery have a good range of wildlife friendly pond plants.

Newly planted pond

Newly planted pond

I’ll save telling you how the pond has fared for another day, but here’s a sneak preview…

The mini pond
The mini pond

If you’re keen to have a go at creating your own pond, the RSPB provide some good guidance. Waterside Nursery’s website also contains lots of useful advice about building a wildlife pond and picking the right plants.

Welcome to the Wild South!

To start my blog, I thought maybe an introduction to my wildlife garden might be in order. We (Dr C, Fat Cat and I) live in a small town, and have a small garden (about 7.5m by 7.5m). Since we moved in (back in 2009) we’ve been gradually trying to turn it into a haven for bugs, birds and other beasts, and have had more success than I anticipated.

The RSPB have some brilliant resources for making homes for wildlife, and many of the ideas we’ve used have come from that.

When we moved in, the garden had a couple of decked areas, a lawn, a couple of borders and a small box hedge. A rampant buddleia has been an attraction for butterflies, bees and birds. Since then we’ve added a bird feeding station, a barrel pond, a small area of meadow, a hedgehog house, birdboxes, some small trees in pots, a wood pile, a raised vegetable bed, an insect log, a bird bath, and probably some more things I’ve forgotten.

Since then we’ve seen 25 species of bird in the garden, along with hedgehogs, a fox, mice, a slow worm, frogs, various pond life and numerous insect species. It’s been really satisfying seeing how quickly wildlife starts to make use of the things we’ve provided. Watching the garden has been a real source of pleasure to me, and I’ve learnt a lot along the way.

The meadow
The meadow
Raised bed & buddleia
Raised bed & buddleia
The mini pond
The mini pond
Bird feeding station
Bird feeding station