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

Tuesday, 20 October 2009

Deer drama

Half past five on a Sunday morning. It is cold and dark and quiet. There is no moon. I climb into the car and drive. A badger dashes across the road and a roe deer’s eyes shine red from the verge. As the sky turns from black to indigo, Exmoor’s hills begin to appear above the mist. I park the car. During the summer, I saw a hind close to this spot and I have returned, on a hunch that it might be a good place to see the red deer rut. As the sun rises, turning the brume pink and the sky forget-me-not blue, I start to walk. 

Seconds after leaving the car, I hear a sound, a strange blend of a lion’s roar and a cow’s moo. I recognise it from dozens of wildlife TV programmes; it is the bellow of a red deer stag. Sensing that it must be just the other side of the hedge, I hurry on. From the gate, with the moor rising up behind me and wooded valleys snaking to the distant grey sea below, I see him. He holds his head forwards on an outstretched neck, mouth open, with white froth at his lips and spectacular, multi-tined antlers. The stag momentarily acknowledges my presence, but then returns his attention to another stag, which is standing a few hundred metres away. There isn’t a breath of wind, but tension ripples the air like static. A hind barks. The first stag starts to trot towards the second, which also breaks into a run. I wonder if there will be a fight, which only happens if the males are so evenly matched that victory cannot be determined by any other way. The contest is a serious one, as only the dominant stag will mate and sire offspring, but a fight is the last resort, as it can lead to injury and even death. The pair close in and it looks as though they will meet head-on, but, instead, they run straight past each other and the second stag gallops away down the hill. Perhaps he has seen enough to know that he can’t win.

Lifting his head to the sky, the victorious stag bellows again and the sound echoes around the moor. He is answered by belling from the opposite side of the valley and I lift my binoculars to spot the calling stag. Another stag roars behind me, higher on the hill. In this natural arena, I am surrounded by some of Exmoor’s 3000 red deer and swept up in their drama, which has been played out here since pre-historic times.

The stag rounds up a few hinds and herds them back towards his own waiting females. Then, the whole group melts into the bracken. Eager to see more, I drop down into the woodland edge and conceal myself amongst some pine trees. In a clearing, a hind twitches her huge, grey, furry ears, listening. A stag, bleeding from the mouth, joins her. I wonder if it is the stag that fled earlier, or if it is a different animal. A fox snuffles past, but the deer are more interested in whatever is thrashing around, unseen, in the undergrowth. They scurry away, to hide in the wood and I trek back up the hill, as the sun turns everything to gold and Exmoor becomes quiet once more.

Now you do it

Scotland is the obvious place to head if you would like to watch the red deer rut, but there are smaller populations throughout the UK, including Exmoor and the Quantocks, New Forest, as well as various deer parks. Countryfile provides a list of places to see rutting red (and fallow) deer and the Forestry Commission lists places that red deer can be found.  

You can join rangers and safari tours to see red deer, but I think that there is something special about going it alone. There is such a sense of achievement in using your field skills to first find the right place to watch and secondly creeping close without disturbing the deer. At this time of year, red deer are conspicuous at dawn and dusk. For information on how to identify red deer and their field signs, check out the New Forest Gateway and the Environmental Records Centre for Cornwall and the Isles of Scilly websites.

The rut lasts from October to November, so get out there straight away if you want to catch it this year!

Thursday, 1 October 2009

House martins at home

I fear that the house martin flock has slipped away, unseen, whilst my attention was elsewhere. I haven’t seen them for days and now, as I anxiously scan the skies for them, there is only a gaping hole in the ether, where hundreds of birds once were. With their departure, I feel as though a chapter of my life has come to an end. When I moved to my new house, a few months ago, lines of house martins screamed a welcome from the telephone wires and over the past few months I have grown to know and become fond of my new, feathered neighbours. I have never shared my home with house martins before, but this particular Devon village seems to support a huge number of them. I decide that perhaps it is down to the mud. Here, rivers and streams, shouldered by clayey banks the colour of burnt ochre, shred the landscape, providing nesting material to these resourceful builders. 
The birds and I co-existed peacefully throughout the summer. As I hung clothes out to dry, they attended their nests amongst the gutters.  Whilst I worked at my desk, they entertained me by performing aerial acrobatics, like a squadron of red arrows outside my window. I paused in my gardening to watch the young poke their heads from the nest and beg for food. I marvelled as they clung to vertical walls, finding footholds amongst the render. I worried for them when it was cold and wet, wondering whether they would catch enough insects to feed their chicks. I tried in vain, again and again, to capture their image on my camera, but they were always too quick, too far away, too small. And when there was a rare day of sunshine, I lay on the crunchy lawn and squinted into the sun, hypnotised by their wheeling and diving, as they towered for insects, high above. 

And now, I feel, inexplicably, that I have let them down, by not being there to see them off on their long-haul flight to Africa. I wonder how they will find the way? Probably by a mixture of visual and olfactory cues, as well as sun, magnetic and star compasses, although that answer hardly explains the phenomenon adequately. There is still so much that we don’t know about these most familiar of birds. Almost incredibly, we still know hardly anything about where they overwinter in Africa and what they do when they get there. Of 250 000 house martins ringed in Britain and Ireland, only 1, singular bird has ever been recovered from sub-Saharan Africa. 

Over the past eight years, I have moved house eight times, but at last I feel settled. Perhaps rather ironically, as house martins are the ultimate nomads, I will forever associate the presence of these birds with the feeling of being at home. Next spring, I will have my fingers crossed for good weather and keep my eye on the sky, hoping for the house martins’ safe return.

Now you do it

The BTO runs a house martin survey. Find out more and join in here

There are a few simple things that can be done to encourage house martins to nest near you: 

Never disturb house martin nests. If you leave them where they have been built, they are likely to be reused the following year, or attract house martins to build their own nests nearby.

Create a pond with muddy banks, or simply a muddy puddle, so that they have something to build their nests from. 

There is some evidence that putting up artificial nests helps to attract house martins. They can be bought in several different places, for example from the RSPB shop

Conservation Status

In the British Isles, house martins have declined by 38% since 1970. They are listed on the Amber list of medium conservation concern.

All nesting birds are legally protected, so it is illegal to damage or destroy the eggs or young, or destroy or damage a nest whilst it is being used.

Saturday, 5 September 2009

Discovering Dormice

I sometimes think that surveying for dormice is not all that it’s cracked up to be. Habitats generally considered to be dormouse-friendly are  distinctly not human-friendly. I spend far too many hours of my life fighting through the tangled branches of hedgerows and shrubby woodland undergrowth with a bag of survey equipment, trying to avoid the various armouries of nettles, bramble, blackthorn and gorse. And it is not only plants that seem out to get a dormouse surveyor; hornets are another hazard. They occasionally take up residence in a dormouse nest box and don’t take too kindly to being disturbed. Once, whilst scaling a hedgebank to reach a dormouse nest tube, I put my foot straight through a wasps’ nest. The wasps gave chase, but, as I made my escape, I dropped my rucksack and, luckily, the wasps focussed their attack on that, instead of me. On top of these things, I hardly ever see the animals I seek; dormice are rare and naturally occur at low densities, so I can go months on end without finding one.

I wasn’t raising my hopes, then, as I stuffed an old rag into the entrance hole of a nest box, lifted the lid and peeked inside. But, something stirred up the leaves inside. My heart began to beat a little faster, as I very gently shut the lid and lifted the box from the tree into an oversized plastic bag, so that I could examine it more closely. I remove the lid and a wood mouse peersout, whiskers working. It is always nice to see this delicate little rodent, but it is not the creature I’m looking for, so, I let it go, to scamper over the leaf litter.

The next few nest boxes are empty and I resign myself to the fact that it will probably be yet another dormouse-less survey day. Then, I come across a box filled to the brim with leaves. It is a characteristic dormouse nest, a woven ball of honeysuckle bark and leaves. But, the leaves are brown and the nest is cold. Its dormouse occupant has long gone.

A few boxes later, I find a perfectly formed dormouse nest, clad with fresh green leaves and my spirits lift at the knowledge that dormice must be close by. Dormouse nests are usually made of honeysuckle bark, leaves, grass and moss, but there are records of bluebell stems and bracken being used too. I have even seen strips of waxed paper bag incorporated into a nest. This nest, which includes a large wad of black and white badger hair, is unusual too. There is a badger sett within the woodland, but I wonder how the dormouse collected the hair. It is often stated that dormice are reluctant to descend to the ground, but surely it must have done to collect the badger hair? It has recently been shown that dormice cross open ground (busy dual carriageways in fact), so perhaps further research may show that dormice are more terrestrial than currently believed. 

As I approach the next box, a furry ginger streak races up the tree trunk to hang, squirrel-like, in the branches above. It stares at me with big black eyes, gripping one twig with its front feet and one with its back feet, its body swinging between them both. The dormouse must have heard me coming. Still, I take down the box to complete the check and when I lift the lid, I discover a nest with three juvenile dormice in it. They are active and orange-furred, so probably about 4 weeks old. They will stay with their mother for about another four weeks, accompanying her on nocturnal foraging excursions, then returning to the nest with her to sleep during the day.

I return the nest box to the tree and as I remove a thorn from my finger, I realise that getting a glimpse into the secret lives of these creatures might just be worth the scratches after all.

Now you do it

Why not take part in the PTES Great Nut Hunt this autumn (more details on the PTES website). Dormouse-nibbled hazel nuts are easily recognised. Dormice make a very neat circular hole, which almost always includes a part of the nut scar. This hole has a smooth inner edge and oblique tooth marks on the outer surface of the nut. Bank voles and wood mice leave ridges on the inner edge of the hole and squirrels are messier – breaking nuts into large, uneven pieces. Beware though – looking for dormouse nuts can be addictive and a walk in the woods may never be the same again!

Conservation status

Hazel dormouse is a UK BAP Priority Species that is legally protected under UK and European legislation. This means that you need a licence (e.g. from Natural England) if you want to carry out surveys for dormice and their nests. The hazel dormouse has been in a long-term decline, although there are signs that this decline is beginning to slow, which may be due to conservation efforts. However, wet summers are not good news for dormice and it may be that this year’s bad weather has an adverse effect on the UK population.

Sunday, 16 August 2009

Roe Deer Rescue?

The buzz of insects was almost drowned out by the crackle and hum of the overhead lines, yet, in the marshy grassland beneath the pylons' brooding skeletons, wildlife thrived. Small skippers and gatekeepers skittered over the purple haze of angelica, marsh woundwort and mint, as a roe buck rose from behind the rushes.

This was the eighth roe deer that I had seen in the past month, a perhaps unremarkable fact, given that the UK has more roe deer now than it has done for 1000 years - a total of 800 000 individuals. One of the eight deer that I had encountered was unusually coloured - a white doe, but it was another roe buck that made the greatest impression on me...
I was in deepest Dorset, surveying far from the beaten track, when I stumbled up ground. Alarmed by my sudden appearance, the deer squealed and tried to escape, but, with its front legsscrabbling helplessly in the dirt, it simply pivoted in a circle around useless back legs.Far from a road, it seemed that the deer had injured itself vaulting the gate that it now lay next to. Breathing heavily, the deer lay still again and regarded me with large, dark eyes.I was close enough to see its moist, black nose twitching and the white of its moustache and chin. Worried that I was adding to the deer's distress, I backed off to phone the RSPCA. I left them detailed instructions where to find it, but was unable to do any more.

We sometimes think of wild animals living a care-free existence, but life in the natural world can be tough and many wild creatures come to a violent end. A roe buck will not normally live for longer than 5 years and every year, over 74 000 deer are hit by cars on UK roads. I hope that the RSPCA were able to save the deer, but the sad truth is that there was probably little that could be done for it, except to prevent it from suffering any further.

Back in the marshy grassland, the roe buck turned its antlered head to stare at me. It was a picture of good health, with a coat that glowed russet in the sunshine and a full set of three tines to its antlers. It took a few delicate steps through the tussocks, turned to have one last look, then slipped away through the fence.

Now you do it
Simon Barnes' recent article about roe deer suggests that they are hard to see - I'm not sure that I agree! You are never far from a roe deer in the UK (Northern Ireland, east Kent, some parts of the Midlands and Wales excepted) and being large, conspicuous and not particularly wary, they are easy enough to find. Dawn and dusk are the best times to watch roe deer, as this is when they are most active although, they are active throughout the day, too. They are generally thought of as woodland species, but they can be seen in all sorts of habitats, including arable fields and urban parks. Marshy grassland bordered by woodland is a great place to see them.

It ca
n sometimes be difficult to tell one deer species from another, especially if all you see is a fleeting glimpse. The roe is a small deer, with a reddish-brown coat in the summer that becomes grey, brown or black in the winter. They have a paler (white to buff) rump patch and no visible tail. The bucks have small antlers in the summer and kids have spotted coats for the first 6 weeks of life.The Forestry Commission website lists places that roe deer can be seen.Martin Noble is leading an organised trip to see deer in the New Forest on 10 October 2009, with the chance to see roe. For more information on roe deer, see The British Deer Society website.

Conservation Status
Roe deer are native to Britain. The species is widespread, relatively abundant and experiencing a growth rate of approximately 2.3%. Roe deer are not subject to specific conservation legislation.

Friday, 17 July 2009

Bringing Beavers Back to Britain

The beaver appeared out of nowhere. One minute the water surface was as still and smooth as ice and the next minute, a beaver was slicing through it like a torpedo.

Photograph courtesy of Ben Lee

It was summer 2008 and I was watching the beavers at Escot in Devon, where I had been monitoring the effects that they had on their enclosure's habitats. Since their release, they had been hard at work; feeding, building lodges, creating pathways and caching food. Their activities were already changing the woodland and aquatic habitats in which they lived. They had felled and pruned many different species of tree, both native and ornamental, including aspen, alder, bay, cherry laurel and rhododendron. They had also coppiced a large stand of willow, reduced the amount of water lily and bulrush in the ponds and added a huge volume of woody material to the lake (something that proved highly unpopular with the anglers that shared it). Earlier that day, I had come across a beaver dam, probably the first to be built in Britain for 800 years and a story which quickly became headline news.

I settled down amongst the meadow-sweet and angelica to watch the beavers as they swam silent laps of the pond. One of the beavers hauled itself onto the bank and waddled along a well-worn pathway towards the stream, dragging its tail on the ground like the tongue from an old trainer.

Its mate climbed onto the opposite bank, shook droplets from its fur and rested back on its haunches. In a sequence that is followed by all beavers, it started to groom. It ran its forepaws over its face, combed its belly fur, its forelegs and hind legs, and then reached behind to groom its flanks and back. And the end of its grooming regime and as the last of the sun was sucked from the sky, the beaver slipped into the black water and out of sight.

A few weeks ago, I was delighted to hear that the beavers at Escot had raised at least one kit, which was probably born at the end of May 2009. At around the same time, a group of beavers was released in Knapdale, Scotland, as part of a trial reintroduction of the species. If the scheme proves successful, it is likely that beavers will be restored to the rest of Britain and perhaps Escot’s British-born kit will be released, to live wild on our waterways.

Now you do it
See Escot's website to find out more about the beavers. They are fascinating animals to watch, carrying out a huge variety of different behaviours, from tree-felling to canal digging, dam-building to grooming and beaver watching at Escot can be arranged - email

Beavers are also present at the Lower Mill Estate
at the Cotswold Water Park, the WWT reserve in Martin Mere, Lancashire and at KWT's reserve Ham Fen in Kent.

A five-year trial reintroduction is underway at Knapdale in Scotland. As the beavers were only released in May, it is recommended that you visit the site later in the year, when the beavers have settled in and there are more field signs to look out for. You can’t miss beaver signs when you see them – look for felled trees, gnawed bark, cut vegetation such as reedmace, which may be floating on the surface of the water, lodges, food stores, footprints, well-used pathways, canals, dams… the list goes on!

Conservation Status
The European beaver is legally protected under Annex IV and Annex II of the EC Habitats Directive and meets criterion 1b of the Species Action Framework as a species for conservation action. There is some debate about exactly when European beavers became extinct in Britain, although recent research shows that they may have still been present in 1800. As they were once native, Britain has a legal requirement to study the desirability of their reintroduction. Any such reintroduction would need to satisfy IUCN Reintroduction Guidelines.

Saturday, 11 July 2009

Happening Upon A Hare

This brown hare had clearly never read a ‘How to watch wildlife’ guide. It was midday and in my fluorescent yellow vest, laden down with equipment and standing in the middle of an otherwise featureless field, I couldn't have been any more conspicuous. Yet, the hare was apparently oblivious to my presence and lolloped calmly and directly towards me through the furrows of the pasture. I turned the dial of my digital camera to 'video' and pressed record.

As the hare drew closer, I tried to keep the lens focused on it, but, I was too interested in watching it in the flesh to spend much time checking the LED screen. It had grizzled, tatty fur like that of a much loved teddy and black-tipped ears that swivelled at the slightest sound. I was down-wind of it, but even if it was unable to smell me, I couldn't understand why it hadn't seen or heard me. Apparently, hares aren't able to see well directly to the front, a fact that photographers sometimes take advantage of by lying in wait on a tramline within a crop. So, maybe that could explain its apparent disregard of me.

When it was almost at my feet, it sat up on its haunches and fixed me with a stare. I held my breath, expecting it to spin and speed away, but, it didn’t. Instead, it took a few more hops towards me, before turning back the way it had come and ambling off again in an unhurried way. Only when it was nearly out of sight did it pick up the pace and sprint, leaping effortlessly over the tussocky grass and away.

Now You Do It
Although brown hares are still relatively widespread and common, they are easier to find in some parts of the UK than others and are absent from the northwest and western highlands in Scotland. According to the guidebooks, brown hares are nocturnal, so you are most likely to see them at dawn and dusk.
The National Trust and Countryfile websites list a few places that they occur and the Slimbridge WWT reserve is also a good place to see them.

Conservation Status
It is thought that brown hares were introduced to Britain by the Romans. In recent years, they have shown one of the most dramatic declines of any British mammal (second only to the water vole), probably as a result of changes in agricultural practice. In comparison to the water vole, they receive relatively little legal protection, but they are a UK BAP Priority Species.

Friday, 3 July 2009

Weird and Wonderful Whirligigs

In the shadow of enormous white satellite dishes and flickering wind turbines, I am lying on my stomach over a pond, my nose almost touching the muddy water below. Perhaps unsurprisingly, some passing ramblers want to know what on Earth I am doing. What I am meant to be doing is a survey - recording the land cover at a particular GPS referenced point, somewhere in the middle of Goonhilly Downs on the Lizard Peninsula in Cornwall. But, I got distracted.

I couldn’t pass by this tiny pool without stopping. Surrounded by ghostly pale orchids and yellow spikes of bog asphodel, it is brimming with life. Common blue damselflies perch delicately on the scrubby pond-side willow, whilst all around me, their larger, more aggressive relatives, the gold ringed dragonflies and broad-bodied chasers, buzz and collide with a zzzpp. I got down onto the ground in order to photograph a newt - a male palmate, with black, conspicuously webbed back feet – but the camera couldn’t focus on it in the murky water. Once I was down there though, I noticed the water boatmen steadily rowing through the water and became mesmerised by the whirligig beetles, which carved crazed circles on the surface, like cars on a Scalextric track.

These tiny beetles live life on the edge, at the interface between air and water. As I watch, they hunt for small invertebrates trapped on the meniscus, using a form of echo-location to find their way. The waves they create in front of them are reflected from obstacles and sensed by their antennae, allowing them to detect their prey. But, whirligigs aren’t restricted to just the surface. They have a divided eye; the top half allows them to see in the air, and the bottom half allows them to see underwater. This means that they can hunt below the surface too, taking a silvery bubble of air with them when they dive.

The ramblers have become interested in the whirligigs and as I haul myself to my feet, thinking that I should really be getting back to work, they are readying their own cameras and taking my place on the bank of the pond.

Now you do it

Whirligig beetles are com
mon in all types of still water in Britain. There is more than meets the eye to these creatures, so why not temporarily transfer them to a jam jar or tray and study them with a hand lens? See if you can see their orange legs and divided compound eye. ARKive has amazing close-up videos of whirligigs (much better than mine!).

Saturday, 27 June 2009

Finding Field Voles

Under the square of roofing felt, I found a pair of tiny, baby voles. I watched them and worried for their safety, as they stumbled blindly around. They had fur, so they must have been at least 9-10 days old, but their eyes were squeezed shut and they looked incredibly vulnerable. Not wanting to disturb them too much, I took a quick photo and gently replaced the roof of their home.

The rough grassland that they were living in suggested that they were baby field voles, as opposed to bank voles, which look very similar, but prefer more wooded habitats. I wanted to be sure though, so I searched for more clues. I followed one of the well-trodden vole runs through the grass and discovered a feeding station - a pile of neatly cut grass and plantain, nibbled at the ends to form a distinctive 45 degree angle. Next to this was a latrine of fresh, green-brown droppings. All of these signs indicated that the babies were field voles.

The next day, I was eager to see how the little voles were growing and I hurried back to the tile. I peeled back the felt very slowly and gently, but my heart dropped at the sight of one of the baby voles, lying still and lifeless on the bare ground. The other one was nowhere to be seen. Sadly, I laid the tile down again, wondering how the youngsters had died. Did they fall victim to a predator – maybe even a shrew? Or had their mother died, before they were fully weaned and able to fend for themselves? I would never know.

A field vole’s life is fraught with danger and is always short. It has many different predators, including kestrels, owls, foxes and stoats, which all kill huge numbers of voles. However, field voles breed prolifically; the young females are able to mate at 6 weeks old and between March and December, a female may have 4-5 litters, each containing 2-7 young. So, despite being apparently helpless in the face of so much adversity, it is a highly successful species and at a count of about 75 million, it is the only mammal species in Britain to outnumber humans.

Now you do it
Field voles are common and their signs are easy to find, once you know what you are looking for. Search at the base of grass tussocks, or under pieces of corrugated iron for their nests - balls of grass, very loosely woven together. You may also find their feeding stations, which are piles of grass and other plants, cut into similar sized lengths with the ends usually having an angle of 45 degrees. It used to be thought that different vole species cut vegetation at specific lengths, but there is so much overlap between the species, that this is not a reliable method of identification. A more reliable method of identification is by their latrines; field vole latrines contain oval, greenish droppings of approximately 5mm in length and 2-3mm in diameter. Bank vole droppings are blacker and water vole droppings are larger (8-12mm in length and 4-5mm diameter). See the ARKive website for more information on field voles and some fantastic videos.

If you live in Sussex, why not take part in the Sussex Mammal Group’s field vole survey? See the Sussex Biodiversity Records Centre website for more information.

Live trapping, using Longworth traps, is also a good way of getting closer to field voles, but make sure that you know what you are doing first. The Mammal Society has a Longworth trap loaning scheme and runs courses on small mammal survey techniques. If you do carry out trapping, be aware that you are likely to catch shrews and will therefore need a shrew license from the relevant Statutory body (e.g. Natural England).

Tuesday, 16 June 2009

Ghostly Goatsuckers

It was once a widely held belief that nightjars sucked milk from the teats of domestic goats. A nasty cattle infection, caused by the warble fly, was also attributed to nightjars, which were thought to attack young calves with their beaks and infect them. As a mysterious bird of the night, equipped with a haunting song, nightjars were often considered with suspicion and bestowed with a host of colloquial names, including goatsucker, scissor-grinder and churr owl. It is these intriguing creatures, so surrounded by folklore, that I set out to find.

It was early evening when I arrived at Aylesbeare Common in East Devon, a known stronghold for this summer visitor, and I strolled around the reserve through a mosaic of dry and wet pebblebed heath, woodland, ponds and grassland. The only sound was the clack of stonechats, singing from the tops of gorse bushes. As the sky darkened and the moon rose, the pale orchids and sheets of cottongrass began to glow and I watched bats circling below planes stacked at Exeter airport. A tawny owl flapped slow and low over the heather.

Then, everything was still for a long time. As the air chilled and I started to wonder whether I should try my luck in a different part of the reserve, or perhaps just give up and go home, I heard a faint churring sound. I turned my head, struggling to identify where the sound had come from and scanning the bushes for some movement that might give the bird's location away. But there were no other clues, so I started to walk aimlessly, deeper into the darkness. Suddenly, a bird with white indicator patches on its wings swooped in front of me and landed on the branch of a dead tree. I stopped in my tracks. A nightjar. The white wing bars and tail spots gave its sex away – it was a male. From its prominent perch it began its moody percussion song, an exotic sound that seemed far more suited to its winter home in Sub-Saharan Africa than southern England. I listened, entranced, to the low, two-tone trill, which reverberated around the heath. Then, out of nowhere, another male nightjar appeared and chased the original bird from its place. With a loud clapping sound, the pair flew off, taking their territorial dispute out of sight.

As I walked back towards my car, I stumbled across another nightjar, which was churring from a tree. The bird’s song was periodically interrupted by noisy, wing-clapping circuits as the bird hawked for moths, slapping its wings together above its body. The nightjar's mouth is adapted to catching insects on the wing, with jaws that can move from side to side, as well as up and down and fringing bristles, which are probably used in food detection and are regularly groomed by the nightjar, using its serrated middle toe. It also has a highly sensitive palate, which means that its jaws snap shut at the slightest touch, rather like a Venus Fly-trap. But, it is the nightjar's large eyes, complete with a tapetum and special cells that are thought to increase the nightjar’s ability to see contrast, which allow it to hunt by night.

Unfortunately, my eyesight was not a patch on the nightjar’s and soon I was unable to make out the bird in the gloom. I tore myself away, knowing that, just like the nightjars, I would definitely be back next year.

Now you do it
Nightjars start to arrive in Britain in April and begin to leave in mid-July, so you still have time to see them this year. Your best bet is to head to an area of heathland or moorland in southern Britain, either just before dawn or at dusk. Choose a nice warm day, as Nightjars are less active in cool, wet weather.

For a list of places to see Nightjar, check out The Forestry Commission website and if you would like to hear the wonderfully unique churr of a Nightjar, visit the RSPB website.

Conservation Status
The nightjar is listed on the RSPB Red List, which means that the species is of high conservation concern and it is a UK BAP Priority Species. The number and range of Nightjar has been declining for much of this century and reasons for the decline include reduction in the amount of suitable habitat (e.g. heathland), disturbance (e.g. recreational activities which can lead to disturbance of nesting and roosting nightjar) and the use of pesticides, which reduces the amount of insect prey available. Climate change may also be playing a part in its decline. The Nightjar is afforded legal protection under Schedule 1 of the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981, which (amongst other things) makes it illegal to disturb a Nightjar or its young at a nest, or whilst it is nest building.