Nature Watch

DECEMBER SLOW WORM

SLOW WORM, DEAF ADDER OR BLIND WORM

ANGUIS FRAGILIS

If the Adder could hear and the blindworm see, Neither man nor beast would ere go free

Before moving to Mansel Lacy we heard this was quite a special place to see these beautiful creatures. We have not been disappointed and have seen one or two at least per year. One was curled up inside a brick of a wall we were rebuilding. So that changed to a gentle repair and all holes left, much to the frustration of my husband David!

These peaceful gentle lizards can be found in Heathland, tussocky grassland, woodland edges and of course mature gardens especially with the good ol compost heap. They have a very shiny coppery appearance. The Males are greyish brown and the females are brown with dark sides as in my photo above. Some Females have a thin line down the back. They can live to at least 20yrs in the wild and up to 50 in captivity.

Mating kicks off in May and the males can become very aggressive towards each other during this time. During courtship the male takes hold of the female by biting her neck and they will then entwine bodies. Courtship can last as long as 10hrs! The females will incubate the eggs internally. Slow worms are Ovi viviparous which means when they lay their eggs they will hatch instantly or within a few minutes and normally have between 6-12 young.

Unlike other uk reptiles the Slow worm does not bask in the open but prefers to hide under logs (in bricks) or in compost heaps. They come out at dusk and feed on slugs.....up to 50 a night! Or invertebrates and worms.

During the winter they spend it in Brumation/ Hibernation under leaf piles or in tree roots. They are mainly found in Wales and South West England and are absent from Ireland. Unfortunately they are on the menu for lots of other animals such as Adders, Pheasants, Hedgehogs, Badgers and Cats. To avoid being eaten the Slow worm will first defecate which produces a foul smell that may put off some predators. The 2nd is to shed their tail that will wriggle to distract the attacker while it escapes. The tail will then grow back, but never as good as the first.

Gamekeepers are encouraged to help these lizards out by doing things us gardeners could also do such as keep rough edges, leave some grass higher in areas. Leave some loose soil in heaps for them to hibernate in. Put sheets of corrugated steel on the floor for their daytime cover in sunny spots. Really the usual stuff if you want wildlife in your space..Dont keep it too tidy.

These little souls are protected by law from injury, killing or trade.

ANGELA STARLING

NOVEMBER HEDGEROW

 

HEDGEROWS

So I decided to write about something we see being destroyed more and more, but something that is probably one of the most important natural structures in our environment. The beautiful Hedgerow.

They have been around since our pioneering bronze age farmers and were embraced by the Romans. They increased as natural borders up until the 18C. They would of been straight but with a curve at one end to allow the team of oxen to turn around. 

After WW2 the government saw a dramatic reduction in the number of integral hedgerows. In some cases 50% were destroyed. This was mainly to make space for larger vehicles of post war agriculture. We have left only around 450,000km in the UK. This is constantly being reduced.

Hedgerows are vital for habitat, food, soil erosion prevention and wind barriers. A number of insects, amphibians, mammals and birds utilise and rely on them. They help protect Dormice and Hedgehogs while they hibernate. They protect newts, frogs and toads which live in them most of the year and only go to ponds during spring and summer to reproduce. Certain species like Bumblebees and Bat’s especially the Greater Horseshoe bat use them to navigate. They provide cover for nesting and roosting birds as well as mice and other mammals. They are a corridor which allows wildlife to move around safely without getting predated. Hedgerows are also a vital food source with their aray of plant life and if left to flower help our pollinators with their rich nectar. Over the year they provide natural foraging with berries and nuts. For farmers they create natural barriers that prevent water run offs from their fields so the ground dries out less. The diverse range of plant life within an old hedge can also help with climate change by storing carbon in its vegetation. However these important and historic structures are under threat. 

Many are protected by law but activity around them is having a huge impact. Constantly being savagely cut low every year can have a huge impact on bird populations and hedgerow health. They can be left up to 4yrs before being tidied up as you might see on the way to Bromyard with their lovely high hedges which give a mass of white flowers every year. Most hedges you never see flower and all that potential nectar unused. 

Only 41% of hedgerows are in a favourable condition, most are too short, too thin or just in poor condition. They suffer contamination from pesticides which not only affect the plants but also the insects and anything that feeds on either. Nitrogen fertiliser is having an increasingly distressing effect on the soils natural balance as it reduces organic matter which is obviously all the goodness within the soil that everything lives off. This has a detrimental effect on hedgerows, any woodlands close to where its used and so the wildlife that live there 

There are many brilliant farmers that are working to protect their hedges, relaying them and expanding them. But unfortunately there are many others and construction companies that are also happily ripping them out. They are also becoming collectors of all our plastic litter that’s in our environment and this can also have a detrimental effect on our wildlife. 

On a good note the best way to manage a hedge to keep it healthy is to lay it. Driving around Herefordshire I have seen this a lot on my travels. But I do think a lot more can be done to help and protect these beautiful and incredible wildlife homes. 

ANGELA STARLING

OCTOBER THE HARE

Photo by Jean-Jacques Boujot

 

The Hare (Lepus Europaeus Taxon-Lagomorpha)

The Hare, for me one of the most Peaceful, Elegant and Beautiful animals to come across. They represent so much to do with our past, our folklore and our countryside that you cant help feeling a strong connection to these stunning mammals.

Firstly Hares and Rabbits are completely different species. Both come from the family Leporids and the genus Lepus. The Hare has a significantly larger heart than the rabbit. The Hares heart can weigh up to 1-1.8% of its body weight whereas the rabbits heart will weigh up to 0.3% of its total body weight. Obviously due to not going to ground and needing to run at high speeds has meant that this biological development is needed.

We have two different species of Hare in the UK. The European Brown Hare and the Mountain (Blue) Hare - Lepus Timidus which is a true native species. In Ireland there is a sub species the Irish Hare. Female Hares have around 2-4 babies in each litter and around 3-4 litters a year. Baby Hares are called Leverets and are born with their eyes open and fur. Because they live above ground they have to be ready to run from the minute they are born. Hares shelter in “forms” which are shallow depressions in the ground. They receive very little parental care which helps to not attract predators when they are at their most vulnerable. Does live in the same area all their lives while the Buck travels far and wide impregnating as many Does as will let him.

Hares eat grass but also bark and bushes unlike the rabbit that prefers softer vegetation. To flee from predators they can reach up to 45mph! They have incredibly strong rear legs. The “Mad March” boxing usually between March and April is practiced by both sexes but will usually be a female fending off an amorous male. The Mountain Hares are brown except during the winter when they moult and produce a white coat so they cant be seen in the snow. Unfortunately due to global warming, loss of snow on the mountains and the fact they cant stop turning white means they are much more vulnerable to be seen by predators.

The number of hares has reduced by 80% in the last 100 years due to changes in farming practices, loss of hedgerow and habitat and hunting. The Hare was introduced in the Iron Age from continental Europe. They were bought over with chickens. It seems they were revered as Gods, as neither were eaten. The Hare is now considered naturalised and has been part of our and other civilisations folklore for generations. In Celtic tradition the Goddess most closely associated with the Hare is Eostre or Ostara. Over the centuries the symbol of the Hare and Ostara has become the Easter Bunny not as most people assume that its a Rabbit. The Hare was sacred to the Ancient Britains and Boudica released one before leading her men against the Roman Cavalry.

This picture shows the Three Hares symbol. It is still a mystery what this means or where it comes from but it has been found in china dating from the 7th century. It can be found in churches and other places of worship throughout the Britain. It has also been found over Europe and into Asia.

Angela Starling

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

SEPTEMBER THE HARVEST MOUSE

Photo by Hendrik Osadnik published under GNU general public license

 

The Harvest Mouse (Micromys Minutus)

Micromys Minutus translates from Latin as “smallest tiny mouse”. The harvest mouse can weigh as little as a 20p piece. It grows to between 50-70mm and apart from their small size their skeleton is also notably light, being just 5% of their total weight. Ours is 15%. This beautiful tiny mouse is a russet orange in colour with undersides of pure white. They have small but furry ears and a shorter muzzle than most mice. The harvest mouse’s tail is unique, being prehensile and is used as a fifth limb, normally as an emergency brake when descending head first. 

These little mice more than likely came over from China before the English channel was formed. They have still not moved very far north and are not found in Scotland or Wales. Most Harvest mice are found in England below Yorkshire. The Harvest mouse lives in long tussocky grass, reedbeds, hedgerows, farmland and the edge of woodlands. Areas of tall grass are favourable habitats to this little mouse as this is where they can build their nests. They are omnivores and eat a variety of seeds, fruit and invertebrates but they have also been known to eat moss, roots and fungi. They are extremely active climbers and will feed in the stalk zone of long grasses and reeds particularly around dusk and dawn. Their hearing is acute and they will react very quickly by either freezing or dropping into cover. This response can be to rustling up to 7m away. In winter they are forced to cease their climbing lifestyle and descend to ground level. They are now in competition for food with other small mammals.

The Harvest mouse is the only British mammal to build a nest of woven grass well above ground level, up to 3 feet. Their nests are built depending on their needs, a small nest of 5cm in diameter for a non breeding nest. A 10cm diameter nest for a breeding one. They will have several litters a year between late May to October and most litters are born in August. Litters are normally around 3-8 pups and are born blind and hairless. These extremely tiny mice grow fast and start exploring on the 11th day. By the 16th day the young are abandoned but will continue to use the nest.

The most familiar image of the Harvest mouse is in a crop of Wheat or Barley. Today, with modern farming methods this would be extremely rare. The biggest threat is cold wet weather and a threat to the management of grassland. Mowing in late summer is very bad for this little mouse due to breeding during this time also if no scrub left over winter they will have no shelter. They receive no formal legal protection at this time, but are on the red list of threatened species.

ANGELA STARLING

 

 

 

 

AUGUST THE POLECAT

Polecat Image Credit: Ilder.jpg: Malene / *derivative work: Mariomassone (talk)

 

Polecat .. Mustela Putorius

The first time I saw a Polecat was unfortunately a dead one on the road. Such a beautiful mammal with his mask round his eyes and quite a thick tail. Since then I’ve seen them a number of times around Hereford, usually at night jumping off the road into the hedge but I have seen them now and then during the day, again seeking the safety and shelter of the hedgerow.

We are very lucky that in Herefordshire we have a good population which is hopefully now spreading throughout Britain. This mammal probably colonised mainland England from continental Europe at the end of the last ice age around 9,500 years ago. Although they reached the mainland they did not reach Ireland.

The Polecat is a member of the Mustelid family of which includes Stoat and Badgers. They live for around 5 years and are solitary in nature and require a square kilometre of home range. Mainly nocturnal you will mainly see them at night, but sometimes if the female is hunting for her kits she will be seen in the day. Radio tracking has shown they particularly favour hedgerows, woodland, riverbanks and in the winter farmland and buildings. They favour lowland countryside and generally will not go above 500m. If threatened they will emit a very pungent musky odour from scent glands at the base of their tails, they also use this to mark territory. Polecats are polygynous (males will have more than one mate) In May/June they will have one litter of around 5-10kits. They will be weaned after 4 weeks and fully grown in 3 months. Polecats will interbreed with ferrets and the young tend to have lighter fur on their backs and whiter faces. Their diet mainly consists of rabbits, rats, frogs, birds and snakes.

Mustela putorius means foul smelling musk bearer. The old English name is Foulmart which distinguishes it from Sweetmart or Pine Marten that has no foul odour. The name Polecat comes from Poule-chat (chicken cat) for its perceived love for chicken. Unfortunately they were reviled as chicken killers and in the middle ages they were declared vermin and a bounty was paid by church wardens for each one killed. By 1915 these mammals had been eradicated from most of mainland Britain. They were basically on the brink of extinction. The only remaining areas where they were still established were Wales, Herefordshire and Shropshire. Reduced predator control after WW2 led to a slow recovery and then the cessation of commercial rabbit trapping in 1950 further eased the pressure from accidental trapping.

Their conservation status is now Protected under the Wildlife and Countryside act 1981 that prohibits the killing or taking of these animals. It is also an offence to trap them even accidentally.

ANGELA STARLING

 

 

 

 

JULY PIPISTRELLE BAT

Pipistrelle in Flight Image by Barracuda 1983 reproduced under free licence

 

PIPISTRELLE BAT

In the UK we have 17 Bat species. That’s almost a quarter of all our mammals! The common Pipistrelle ie Pipistrellus Pipistrellus is one of our smallest. This little bat can fit in a matchbox. The fist time I got close to one of these little guys a friend called me as one was just lying on her front step. We got him into a cardboard box and gave him water and released him later that night. I was struck by the fact it was such an ugly little thing but that in itself made him beautiful. I’ve had a soft spot for bat’s ever since. 

75% of bat sightings are Pipistrelles. They are our most common bat and are seen quite regularly around dusk. All our bat’s are nocturnal and find their food through echolocation. They will eat up to 3000 insects a night by scooping them up in their little wings. 

They roost in tree holes, roof spaces and of course Church roofs. Their colonies can be up to a 1000 strong. 

Females will get pregnant between September to November but will then undergo a process known as delayed implantation. Her eggs will be fertilised immediately but the embryo only starts to develop when hibernation ends around 4 months later. The females will form maternity colonies and have just one single pup in June/July. They will feed their young on milk for around 3 week and then the pups are ready to fly. During this time the males will stay well away. 

Bat populations are still fairly healthy but the last few years there has been a worrying decline. Habitat loss and disturbance are their biggest threats. If bat’s are disturbed they will abandon their young and won’t return to them. As usual a drop in habitat loss from the destruction of mature trees and hedgerows and agricultural practices have meant the loss off dwelling places and insect food. Which also is an issue for most of our wildlife today with up to a 75% decline in all insect numbers. If you would like to help bat boxes offer great roosts and planting wildflowers to help increase the amount of insects. Dandelions and foxgloves are great! 

ANGELA STARLING

 

 

 

JUNE THE PIED FLY CATCHER

Pied Flycatcher painted by Paul Hopkinson and reproduce with his kind permission
ARTWORK by kind permission of Paul Hopkinson (visit www.devonartist.co.uk)

PIED FLYCATCHER        Ficedula hypoleuca 

The Pied flycatcher is a small bird sightly smaller than a sparrow. They are a summer visitor migrating here from West Africa in late April to early May. It’s the males which are pied with stunning black and white plumage. They have adorable white spots in between their eyes like little flash lights. The female as with most species are a more gentle brown and cream. 

The males arrive first at the breeding site to find a suitable location for nesting. He will defend this area before attracting a female with his call. The female will build the nest mainly from fine dry grass. They then lay between 4-10 eggs which are smooth and blue and once finished will incubate for 13-15 days. Once hatched the chick’s are fed by both parents which will be ready to fledge at around 14-18 days old. 

 

The flycatchers song is a sweet warble that is remembered as tree, tree once more I come to thee. https://youtu.be/qZuy_u1D2TQ

They are on the species red list of concern. They have declined by 53% since 1995. There is little evidence this actually has anything to do with breeding grounds but more to do with global warming. Their timing of breeding has become mismatched to availability of prey as warmer advanced spring results in earlier availability of invertebrate food. UK data is starting to suggest some adaption with advances in egg laying dates. 

The reason for giving you this information on the not much known pied flycatcher are the nesting boxes you see in the woods. When  I saw these I set out trying to find who was obviously managing them. I was finally put in touch with a member of the Hereford Ornithological Club who is ringer checking the boxes. So I immediately volunteered with him and have joined them every year since. Dave Coker has constantly shown great patience in teaching and helping me ring birds and has taught me so much to do with the birds we have been recording. His main focus in Hereford are the Pied flycatchers and he checks a total of 4 woodlands. 

When we check the boxes which starts weekly from April it does not matter what’s using them, we record nest, egg and chick progression and whether they fledge successfully. 

Very basically if we look at a tit nest (which use these boxes the most) the female like the pfc does all the work until the young need feeding then the male will start helping too. So it takes roughly 2 weeks to build a nest, 2 weeks to lay their clutch, one egg a day (the most we’ve had are in the photo and that’s 18 blue tit eggs) 2 weeks to incubate then 3 weeks for the young to fledge. 

Please if you are up in the woods between April and August do not look inside the boxes. There’s a few reasons for not checking boxes anywhere during this time, the first is it might be a Wren nesting. We had 2 last year which we were very carefully recording without opening the box. The reason for this is they create a dome of moss and if this is disturbed in anyway the adults will not return and any young will obviously perish. 

The other problem is with bolting chicks. If the chicks are older but not ready yet to fledge their danger instinct is to jump out of the nest in panic. This would obviously be very worrying and could result again in the chicks perishing. 

ANGELA STARLING