Wednesday, 23 March 2011

Dance of the Adders

This spring, some of Devon’s snakes will engage in spectacular behaviour known as the ‘dance of the adders’, when two vipers rise up and sway back and forth with entwined bodies. But, this display is not, as it might first appear, a romantic rumba between a courting couple, or, an audition for an animal version of Strictly Come Dancing; in reality, it is something much more violent - a brawl between two guys over a girl.

Adders are unable to function in cold weather and throughout the winter, they have been secreted away, hibernating in rodent burrows and amongst roots, sheltered from harmful frosts. But, as temperatures rise, the snakes begin to stir. Mature males are the first to emerge from their hidey-holes and sometimes appear as early as February. They slither to a sunny spot and bask in the weak spring sunshine to raise their body temperature. If you see them at this time, they may appear a bit shabby, with dull skin and opaque eyes, caused by a layer of oil beneath their scales. They rub themselves against some
thing rough and peel off their old skin, from head to tail. It turns it inside out, like a sock, to reveal a new, brighter, more boldly patterned version. A few weeks later, the females and immature adders rouse themselves from their slumber. And after the female has basked and moulted, the adults’ minds turn to sex.

The female produces a scent from a pair of glands at the base of the tail and wherever she goes, she leaves a trail that males find irresistible, like the ‘Lynx effect’ with role reversal. He follows behind, tasting the air with his forked tongue and drawing scent molecules into the Jacobson’s organ on the roof of his mouth. When he has caught up, he flicks his tongue, in and out, over her body. The pair may quiver their bodies and tails and if the female is receptive, copulation takes place. The male snake’s reproductive organ is a strange thing, divided into two, forked lobes called hemipenes, which are covered in frills and hooks that ensure the couple stay locked together until mating is complete. For hours or days afterwards, the male guards his female, but if another male appears on the scene, things can get heated. The males rear up and wind their bodies around each other, in an attempt to push each other to the ground. This wrestling match between rival males is the famous ‘dance of the adders’. The larger male is likely to win and chases the loser off, before returning to his post, beside the female. Despite his best efforts, fatherhood is not guaranteed, as the female will have multiple partners and may even produce offspring using sperm from previous years.

Once the important business of reproduction is dealt with, the adders are finally free to turn their attention to finding some food, possibly their first meal in six months and all being well, the next generation of adders will be born in August or September, swelling the ranks of one of Devon’s most fascinating creatures.

Over to you
If you want to watch the ‘dance of the adders’, please remember that these beautiful snakes are venomous. Nobody has died from an adder bite since 1975, but it is still wise to treat them with respect. They are shy creatures and will not bite without provocation, but observe from a distanc
e and don’t attempt to pick one up. Adders can be found throughout the county, in a range of different habitats, including heath, forest and scrub. Dartmoor is a refuge for them and a great place to see them. According to local folklore, Wistman’s Wood ‘writhes with adders more venomous than any others on Dartmoor’. I once went blackberrying at Padley Common, Chagford and suddenly found myself surrounded by half a dozen dozing adders, having blundered right into the middle of them and more recently, I came across several adders on a footpath through a forestry plantation close to Tottiford Reservoir, near Christow.

Another local story says that to find adders you need to look for dragonflies, which were supposedly put on the moor to warn of the presence of these venomous snakes, hovering above them to give their location away. A more scientific approach involves checking out habitat edges such as clearings amongst dense bracken, grassy woodland rides … any sunny spot close to dense cover that the snake can dive into, should danger threaten.

The best time to look for snakes is early morning, during warm (but not hot) weather. Take a pair of binoculars and scan the ground ahead, looking for movement and listening for rustling. Tread gently, as adders can feel vibrations. Basking adders are well camouflaged, but where there is one, there are likely to be several and they are creatures of habit, so they often return to the same basking spot again and again.

Friday, 5 November 2010

Lagoon Lookout

I was a woman with a plan. I was going to treat myself to a couple of hours in a bird hide on the estuary and write a sparkling piece about it for my long-neglected blog. I have always loved estuaries. I am never happier than when I am gazing out at an expanse of rippling water and mud, listening to the otherworldly calls of curlews and oystercatchers. In such a constantly changing environment, there is always something interesting going on. And, apart from that, I have heard that otters are regularly seen from this particular hide.

So, I was not best pleased, when having driven for an hour, I discovered that my hide was under repair and out of use. Grumbling to myself, I stomped across the marsh to the next hide, overlooking a lagoon. At first glance, writing material seemed thin on the ground. I texted my husband to tell him that my plans had changed and I was now sitting in a hide with no birds in sight. He texted back, “Isn’t a hide without birds just a shed?” He had a point.

I picked up my binoculars and scanned the water. The scene was not, as I had first imagined, devoid of bird life. There was an elegant little egret stalking the shallows, a couple of mute swan, half a dozen moorhen and a little grebe, which swam straight towards me. A group of black-headed gulls, with charcoal-smudged winter faces, huddled together by the far bank. I settled down to watch, hoping that something exciting would happen. I don’t know what I expected. I didn’t really mind, as long as it gave me a story.

Time passed. The wind howled around the hide and ruffled the surface of the water. I wondered whether I should move on; try pastures new for my story. Then, I started to notice things that I had not taken the time to notice before – the bright orange of the autumn oak trees, the steely-blue of the water and the crows, hanging in the air like puppets cut loose from their strings. I turned at the sound of a kingfisher and watched it land on a po
st. A group of teal appeared out of nowhere and quietly dabbled. A pied wagtail hunkered down on an island and the egret stood on the shore to preen, exposing its shocking yellow feet. Suddenly, I realised that my attitude had been all wrong. The natural world does not have to be exciting. It does not have to ‘perform’ for my benefit. Nature documentaries have got a lot to answer for in this respect, raising the bar and our expectations, by showing us only the most interesting behaviour and the best quality close-up portraits. Wildlife watching in the real world is often nothing like that. It is a glimpse of a roe deer, before it melts into the woodland, the scrunch of leaves underfoot and the smell of damp earth. It is about delighting in the first primrose of the year, or discovering that blue tits are nesting in your garden. It is about all those little everyday things that connect you to the natural world and which you see as soon as you take the time to really look.

Thursday, 8 July 2010

Mating Molluscs

The mating snails amongst my vegetable seedlings present me with an ecological and ethical dilemma. When I was a kid, I loved snails. I would don my cagoule and scour my parents’ garden for them in the rain, following their slime trails on the grass and collecting as many as possible into an old icecream tub. I would study my catch, marvelling at the different patterns and colours of their shells. I would gently stroke their tentacles and watch, intrigued, as they retracted back into their moist bodies. I would laugh as they blew bubbles and race them against each other, before releasing them back into the garden.

My love for snails began to wane when I started growing vegetables. At first, unable to bring myself to kill them, I would collect them from my allotment and take them to a public park several miles away. But, the sheer number of snails I found started to make the whole process a bit ridiculous and so, sadly, I realised that if I wanted to ever eat any of the vegetables that I so carefully nurtured from seed, I would have to wage war on the molluscs. So, I started to kill them. Not with slug pellets, which are lethal to so many non-target animals, but with a quick blow from a trowel.

Now though, I was witnessing something very intimate, which I’d never taken the time to notice before. It was the perfect weather for snail love-making – a warm, wet, summer evening and the two snails, both hemaphrodites, had reared up and were entwined in an embrace. I hovered over them, trowel in hand, but they seemed oblivious to my presence. This particular pair were probably responsible for the fact that, out of three packets of seeds, I have only a single carrot plant left; the fact that I have never managed to grow a summer squash to maturity; that my lettuces are more holey than Honiton Lace; and the fact that every sunflower I have ever tried to grow has been cut down before its time by a rasping radula. If I allow them to continue reproducing, their ranks will be swollen by more vegetable-decimating invertebrates. And yet, and yet, I cannot bring myself to bash them, whilst they are so absorbed in what must be one of the most important moments of their lives.

Feeling like a voyeur, I peer a little closer. The two snails are joined by their partially everted genitalia and a calcified ‘love dart’, which is thought to increase the male's chance of siring offspring. My decision made, I pick up the courting pair and take them away from my pots of seedlings, to dump them next to a lane at the back of my garden. It is a token gesture. There is no doubt in my mind that they will quickly find their way back, to each lay their hundred or so eggs amongst my much-loved plants. Then, in two weeks, their progeny will, I'm sure, emerge to grow fat on mangetout and rhubarb that is meant for my plate and I will have to call an end to this temporary ceasefire. At least the song thrushes are on my side.

Now you do it
One of the most bizarre courtships of the animal world could be going on in your back yard. Surprisingly little is known about the mating rituals of the garden snail, one of our most common and familliar of animals. To witness this unusual event, you will probably need to search with a torch on a warm, wet night. Your vegetable patch is a good place to start looking...

Tuesday, 25 May 2010

Wetland Wildlife

I am slightly obsessed by my new pond and have been making frequent trips to the bottom of the garden to see how it is developing. Only a month old, it is already home to two large red damselflies, a flotilla of pond skaters and their skinnier look-alikes – water measurers, red water mites, some anaemic-looking nematode worms, mayflies, water boatmen, several different beetle species and thousands of mosquito and midge larvae. So, when I heard about the WWT’s campaign ‘Wildest Hide and Seek’, I couldn’t resist taking part and finding out whether the presence of a pond affects the range of animals that I find in my garden.

Photo by Hans Hillewaert licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.5 Generic license.

I don’t have many places to hide in my garden, but I made myself as inconspicuous as possible under the apple tree and settled down to wait for the wildlife to appear. It was nine in the evening and everything had started to wind down. The summery sound of singing and scolding blackbirds filled the air, as did a dense cloud of flying insects, which fizzed around the pond. I batted them away and crossed my fingers that the bats would soon be out to gobble them up. Swallows and house martins screamed in front of a bulging moon in a sky the colour of stone-washed denim.

In the pond, a large, black beetle broke the surface, whilst smaller golden beetles busied themselves in the mud. The pond skaters were wrapped up in their own little world, mating, bickering over food and lazing around on the surface. Stars started to appear in the darkening sky. The birds became silent. There was a rustling in the hedge. Something large was rooting around and I waited with baited breath for it to appear, suspecting a badger. But then, a dog barked and the mysterious creature went quiet. A bat flew out of nowhere and swooped low over the pond. I whipped out my latest piece of kit – a bat detector - and tried to work out what species I was looking at. It darted around the pond and skimmed the lawn. On the detector, its ultrasonic calls were made audible, buzzes revealing when it was feeding. It was loudest at about 45KHz and was perhaps a pipistrelle, although I couldn’t be sure. The air was chilly now and I stood up, to search for any other animals in my garden. I scanned the the pond with a torch for newts or frogs and looked in the hedgerow for hedgehogs, but there were none to be found. I may not have been able to tick off many of the species on the Wildest Hide and Seek list, but it was a fantastic excuse to simply sit and watch the world go by for a while.

Now all I have to do is upload my results!

Now you do it
The Wildfowl & Wetlands Trust (WWT) ‘Wildest Hide & Seek’ study runs until Monday 31st May, so there are still a few days left to take part. The survey is looking at the effects wetlands may have on the range of wildlife found nearby and marks the International Year of Biodiversity.

In true ‘Hide & Seek’ fashion, participants spend some time hiding quietly in their garden or nearest open space, followed by a few minutes of seeking and recording the wildlife they see.

As a big ‘Thank You’, those who take part will also receive a 2 for 1 voucher for entry to their local WWT centre.

Find out more about how to take part, and download a survey guide (or pick up a copy at your local Wetland centre)

In support of the ‘Wildest Hide & Seek’ survey wildlife enthusiasts have also been submitting their own YouTube videos to the WWT ‘Be Your Favourite TV Presenter’ competition.

Wednesday, 21 April 2010

My Pond Pledge

There are a million more urgent things on my ‘to do’ list. For a start, there are great lumps of plaster missing from the walls of my living room, there is a hole in the ceiling of my bedroom and I still have no central heating or hot water. I had to push all of these to the back of my mind to focus on what I felt to be the really important issue – the lack of a pond in my garden. Ever since a lone palmate newt crawled across my patio last autumn and I pledged to create a pond for IYB, it has been weighing on my conscience.

Wanting to get started, but slightly overwhelmed by the task ahead, I did what any sensible person would do – I invited my parents to lunch and then set them to work in the garden. Soon, we had marked out the shape of the pond and removed the topsoil. My dad, experienced creator of many ponds, advised me on the best way to make sure that it was level, so that the liner wouldn’t show. My mum, clearly, disagreed with his method and assured me that there was a better way to check the levels. An argument ensued and continued to rumble on for the rest of the afternoon.

Days after they had gone home, I was still digging, gaining a few extra inches of depth and a larger pile of subsoil, every day. Then, on a bit of a whim, I decided that what I really wanted was a bog garden, or more technically, a marsh garden, so, next to the pond, I dug an area roughly 20cm deep and used up the liner that was left over from my dad’s latest pond. I punctured the black plastic with a fork and back-filled it with the clayey subsoil.

My husband was the next to be enlisted to help and had to completely take over the pond-digging after an unfortunate incident with the wheelbarrow, which twisted and overturned in my hands, leaving me with a bad back and teaching me a valuable lesson about buying the cheapest available tools from B&Q. Progress slowed as he hit a layer of flinty stones. My neighbours on both sides, who I fear watch all of our exploits with raised eyebrows, poked their heads over fences on opposite sides of the garden and made the same joke about digging to Australia.

Eventually, my husband decided that he had dug enough. We spent a small fortune on liner and then ages picking stones out of the bottom of the hole. Next to go in was a protective layer of sand and when that ran out, we improvised with cardboard. Once the liner was in position, we suddenly realised that we had a bit of a problem. Between our new pond and our outside tap, was a back yard, a garage, an access lane and approximately 90 foot of lawn. Realising that I was in for a long slog, I set to work, filling up the watering can. Our neighbours on the left, taking pity on us, offered us the use of their outside tap and hose. Our neighbour on the right, seeing that the hose still didn’t reach, offered us his, so that we could extend it. The water level of the pond rapidly began to rise.

When it was full, we cut the liner to size, wishing that we had listened to the man in the shop who thought that we were buying too much, placed some stones around the edge and rolled back the turfs. Then we stood back to admire our new pond. I felt an immense sense of achievement. Not only had we created something, which looked, amazingly enough, OK, and would give us pleasure for years to come, we had done our little bit for biodiversity.

At that moment, a pond skater arrived out of nowhere. Within half an hour, there were tiny beetles whizzing about in the water and hoverflies buzzing over the surface. The following day, my neighbour on the right told me that he had thrown (although I’m sure he meant to say 'delicately placed'!) a couple of juvenile newts over the hedge, which had been hiding under a sheet of plastic in his garden. They haven’t made an appearance in the pond yet, but it is surely just a matter of time.

Now you do it
Ponds are fantastic for wildlife and a declining habitat type, so creating a new one in your garden is one of the best ways to make your garden a little bit greener. I have just discovered a brilliant step-by-step guide to making a wildlife pond on the Pond Conservation website, which I wish I had found earlier!

Advice on how to make a bog garden seems to vary - with opinion differing as to whether the soil should be nutrient-rich or nutrient-poor. Perhaps it is worth experimenting to find which method gives the best results.

I still haven't quite decided whether to plant up the pond with natives, or leave it to mother nature and see what turns up without my input. I would be fascinated to see what arrives naturally, but I also want my garden to look pretty this summer...dilemma! I would love to hear from anybody who has resisted planting their pond who can tell me how long it might take for mine to look half decent!

Wednesday, 31 March 2010

Saving Snuffles

There was an answerphone message to say that the hedgehog I had rescued just after Christmas (see earlier post) was due for release. He had apparently acquired a new name - Snuffles - and a lot of weight. Curious to see how the hedgehog was doing and keen to release him close to the place he was found, I took a shoe box to collect him from the Help a Hedgehog Hospital. Annie, who had cared for him for the previous three months, led me through the garden to a rabbit hutch that had been his temporary home. Snuffles, having feasted for three months, had grown to about 800g, more than twice the size that he had been when we found him, wandering around in the snow. Annie lifted him from his bed of hay and we both eyed my shoe box uncertainly, wondering whether Snuffles was in fact, too fat to fit. Snuffles, too, looked unimpressed, unfurling his football-sized body just long enough to fix his beady, blue-black eyes on us, before rolling back into a ball. I took him, squeezed rather unceremoniously into the box, back to my parent's garden, where a hedgehog house was ready for his arrival. It was wedged under a branch, so that it could not be flipped over by badgers, which would eagerly tuck into a tasty hedgehog, given half a chance. We stuffed some of Snuffle's hay into the box, to provide a familiar scent and then, I lifted the lid to let Snuffles, chuntering and grunting away to himself, slowly make his way through the narrow entrance to the safety of the hedgehog house.

That evening, as dusk fell, I staked out the hedgehog house, hoping to see Snuffles emerge and feed on the plate of dogfood that I had put out for him. I stood in the drizzle, watching a bat, the first I had seen this year, doing laps around the beech tree. I gave it an hour, but I had to get home, so I left, disappointed, without seeing Snuffles take his first steps back into the wild. There is evidence to suggest that hedgehogs kept in captivity for at least a month survive well when released, so Snuffles has every chance of living a normal, healthy life. Maybe I will catch a glimpse of him again one day, foraging in the garden. Perhaps he will bring back a mate and the garden will be filled with hoglets. But, then again, he might just disappear, to live his life out of human view, back where he belongs.

Now you do it

To make your garden hedgehog friendly:

  • never use pesticides - slug pellets and other pesticides are dangerous to hedgehogs.
  • create a garden with high biodiversity. This means having a range of different habitats and micro-habitats such as hedgerows, ponds, compost heaps, leaf litter and log piles, and a variety of different plants to attact the invertebrates that hedgehogs eat.
  • provide additional food, such as tinned or dried dog or cat food, mealworms or chicken.
  • ensure that hedgehogs are not fenced in or out of your garden. They need to roam over large areas, so leave gaps in boundary fencing to allow them to travel.
  • make sure that swimming pools and ponds do not become hedgehog death traps and that there is always a way out, such as a ramp, should a hedgehog fall in.
  • Be careful that any netting used in the garden can not trap a hedgehog.
  • check for hedgehogs before strimming, mowing, lighting a bonfire etc.
  • provide either a purpose-built hedgehog house or make your own.

Thursday, 31 December 2009

Giving Hedgehogs a Helping Hand

You would be forgiven for thinking that I had gone into hibernation with my lack of recent blogging activity. But, I haven't, just as the little hedgehog that I found scurrying about in the open air this morning hadn't.

A hedgehog was really the last thing that I was expecting to see a few days after Christmas in the middle of the day and I had to take a closer look before I could quite believe my eyes. I crept up to it, as it snuffled for food over a small triangle of grass. Then, as though suddenly sensing my presence towering above it, it froze and fixed me with a sparkly, black eye. Its long nose twitched, as though it suspected that I was up to something. As I reached down to pick it up, it slowly rolled itself into a ball. I held the spiny bundle gently in my gloved hands and it felt as light as a feather. Knowing that hedgehogs should be tucked up asleep during December days and that there was obviously something wrong with this one, I took it home. Carrying it at arm’s length, I scanned it for the fleas that I was sure it would be crawling with, but could see none. Once home, I placed it in a cardboard box with a towel, a jam jar lid of water and a spoon of dog food, then left it alone in a quiet room. I peered inside a few minutes later to find that it had unfurled and stuck its head into the folds of the towel, leaving just a spiny rump and the tip of a black tail on show.

To give my hedgehog the best chance of survival, I did a quick internet search and found my nearest hedgehog hospital, just a few miles down the road. At the Help the Hedgehog Hospital I was greeted by the founder, Annie Parfitt, who has devoted herself to caring for injured, sick and orphaned hogs. She was currently caring for eleven other hedgehogs, in a variety of sheds, cages and rabbit hutches throughout her house and garden. She took one look at my hedgehog and told me that it was a juvenile from a second brood this autumn. Weighing it in her hands, she estimated that it was about 300g – nowhere near the 600g that it should be if it was to survive the winter in the wild. She told me that climate change was leading to fewer second brood hedgehogs surviving the winter. She placed my hedgehog in a cage and within minutes, it was munching its way through a dish full of meal worms. This hedgehog was the lucky one. Its litter mates, on the other hand, would not make it through the winter in the wild without help. My little hedgehog though, had a good chance of survival. There were no signs of lungworm or other illnesses. It was simply a case of feeding it up and releasing it in the spring, close to where it was found and perhaps with a mate. I left the hedgehog hospital feeling happy. For a declining species like the hedgehog, every individual that can be saved and released to breed is a success story.

Now you do it
Keep your eyes peeled for hedgehogs out and about during the day through the winter. If you find any, their best chance of survival is being looked after by somebody who knows what they are doing. Put the hedgehog in a box with a warm hot water bottle wrapped in a towel, then when it has warmed up (after about an hour), provide it with some water in a saucer and dog or cat food. Then get it to a hedgehog carer as soon as possible - To find your nearest check out The British Hedgehog Preservation Society website.

Conservation Status
The hedgehog has recently been added to the UK BAP as a Priority Species. There are an estimated 1,555,000 hedgehogs in the UK, although this is thought to be decreasing in parts of England and Wales. Possible reasons for a drop in numbers are agricultural intensification, loss of habitat, an increase in the number of badgers, more road traffic, drier summers and changing gardening practices. Climate change has also been highlighted as a potential factor in the decline. Hedgehogs do not need to hibernate and do well in warmer climates, but unpredictable weather is a problem. Mild, wet weather during winter may cause hedgehogs to arouse from hibernation, potentially at a time when there is not enough food to sustain them. For more information on hedgehogs, check out Wildlife Online