April 19, 2014

Badger (Meles meles)

In wistful mood. Had word today that a long lost friend is irretrievably so. Perhaps it’s this then that’s made me feel even more bleak about the coalition government’s proposed Badger cull.

It’s a sad turnout that in the international year of biodiversity, extermination is considered a cheap and easy solution to any problem.

That’s enough politics, I’ll just let the picture do the talking, suffice it to say that I sincerely hope that this isn’t all that’s left of Brock in a few years time.

Linnet (Carduelis cannabina)

Not your classic bird pose this one, but I’ve always been interested in capturing pictures of birds at this stage of flight. Whether the slow power of larger birds as they beat the air into submission or that fizzing burst of energy which propels the littler ones, for me there’s something magical about freezing the action at the point when they actually defeat gravity.

Linnets used to be popular cage birds, the male having an intricate, and slightly ethereal twittering song, but thankfully that sort of thing doesn’t happen any more. Just as well as this is now listed as an RSPB red list species, breeding numbers having fallen significantly over the past 25 years in this country, as well as being a Species of European Conservation Concern.

Again its changes in farming practices which have so dramatically affected a bird which exploited non intensive arable practices. The increased use of herbicides and monocultural approaches to grassland ‘improvement’ have eliminated a lot of the seed rich native plants or ‘weeds’ as they’re often called. The widespread use of another monoculture, the increasingly widespread bane of hayfever sufferers, oil seed rape, has been beneficial during the summer, but the lack of stubble fields during the winter months has robbed them of habitat and food, when they need them most.

Just in case you’re not convinced about the ID of the blurry blob in the first picture, here’s the one I took fractionally before.

Nice, but not quite so much fun in my opinion.

Buzzard (Buteo buteo)

During the 1940s and ’50s the use of pesticides badly affected Buzzard numbers by reducing their ability to reproduce. The withdrawal of these chemicals in the ’60s along with a significant reduction in illegal killing by gamekeepers, led to a gradual re-population across the country.

These days it’s our most common raptor, the naturalist’s name for a bird of prey, and over here in the West they’re extremely numerous, approaching their maximum breeding density of around one pair every 1.2 miles.

I knew they hunted a variety of prey apart from their usual prey of voles, as I’ve frequently seen them standing around in muddy winter fields, often in small groups, hunting earthworms. You can see by the above photo that a Jackdaw (Corvus monedula) is a much larger proposition than either worms or voles, and although I didn’t expect them to be eating something this big, according to a recent Norwegian study they often target medium sized birds. Indeed this study recorded them feeding 10 Jays (Garrulus glandarius) and even a magpie (Pica pica) to their young!

All of a sudden, the relentless mobbing behaviour, where individuals of a certain species cooperatively attack or harass a predator, made a bit more sense to me. I always particularly wondered why Corvids (crows and their allies), so often on the receiving end of mobbing themselves, bothered to hassle Buzzards. But if they’re a legitimate prey species themselves, I suppose it’s a smart evolutionary strategy.

Mobbing also seems to play an important part in teaching juvenile birds about predatory species, as well as making it impossible for the predator in question to mount any kind of sneak attack. My hens do something similar whenever a Sparrowhawk (Accipiter nisus) tries it’s luck by hiding in the Holly tree in our side garden, hoping a Tit or Finch will hop in for dinner. They all race over and cluster around the base of the tree squawking, clucking and generally making a lot of noise. In the face of all this hysterical racket the Sparrowhawk invariably gives up pretty quickly and if there ever were hen chicks around to witness it, I’m sure they’d get the picture too.

Mouse Spider (Scotophaeus blackwalli)

Not to be confused with the Australian Mouse Spiders (Missulina) which are much bigger and very fierce looking, these are however similarly capable of delivering a proper bite, one of 14 species found in the UK thought to be powerful enough to penetrate our skin.

I was once bitten by a Woodlouse Spider, which took my childhood arachnophobia to another level, but I’m over that now. Well almost.

Starling (Sturnus vulgaris)

Another species I used to see more of. This one’s in real trouble and now on the red list.

As a schoolboy waiting for my bus in the centre of Bristol, the increasingly dark nights following the start of the new school year used to be made slightly more bearable by the giant flocks of Starlings which wheeled overhead before roosting on the surrounding buildings.

As a young urban bird watcher, this species was pretty much guaranteed in any garden or park probing the grass for insects or squabbling for food on the bird table. I certainly took them for granted, though always enjoyed seeing them for their iridescent plumage and characteristically boisterous behaviour.

Gradually and without me even really noticing they became somewhat less ubiquitous and when I moved away to college in Reading, I supposed that they just weren’t such a common species that far West. In truth, habitat and invertebrate prey loss through changes in farming practices, the fetish for new build housing and a general tidying away of favoured nesting places, has lead to a drop in numbers across Europe. In the UK, they’ve declined by over 66% since the 1970s.

This spring, I was therefore particularly pleased to discover that the scrabbling noise in the roof directly above our bedroom window was down to a pair of Starlings, who’d excavated the old House Sparrow nest behind the gutter.

This video was taken a few days before the chicks successfully fledged and you can hear them shrilly welcoming their parent’s beak full of still wriggling insect goodness!

European Hedgehog (Erinaceus europaeus)

Hedgehog

Hedgehog (Erinaceus europaeus)

Like foxes, I’ve seen many more of these in urban areas than in my current rural habitat. I’d generally assumed that the local abundance of cover and lack of street lighting was to blame for my lack of recent sightings and in the area where I now live, this is probably is indeed the case, but I was rather dismayed to discover that in 2007 this familiar species of my childhood in Bristol, joined yesterday’s similarly ubiquitous species, the Common Toad, on the at risk register for flora and fauna – the UK Biodiversity Action Plan.

Habitat loss is a major threat for the modern urban Ms Tiggywinkle and it’s principally connected to the recent trend for tidy gardens. It often used to be the case that even the most fastidious of gardeners used to leave more unkempt areas to encourage wildlife and allow a bit of variety into their otherwise carefully managed plots. My Grandfather had an area about a quarter of the size of his more formal garden, which was fondly referred to as ‘the jungle’ and was filled with the truly interesting things, certainly from my perspective. This wild area was screened by trees and never mown, so was one of my earliest invertebrate hunting grounds. In fact long after my tree house fell into disrepair, the richness at the bottom end of the food chain and the general seclusion of this area, meant that it took some time for Grandpa to finally discover why he was suddenly seeing so many foxes. In fact, they’d dug a substantial earth under an old gnarled apple tree and raised a family without anyone noticing.

Without these wild urban areas, species like the Hedgehog, which have pretty meager requirements, have nowhere to forage or hibernate and so sadly their numbers decline pretty quickly. There is hope though. Maybe now that TV programs like Springwatch seem to be more popular than the garden makeover variety, it will raise people’s awareness about the impact of eradicating their own tiny ‘jungles’ which give a vital foothold to some of our most valuable and exciting garden visitors. As a matter of fact the sound of mating hedgehogs is certainly quite an experience. Leaving aside the old joke: “How do hedgehogs make love? Carefully” they do make an unearthly racket which sounds as though it’s coming from a much larger and infinitely fiercer animal.

So gardeners here’s a few wildlife gardening tips:

  • Why not leave your lawn a bit longer in places to attract pollinating insects like bees, beetles, moths and butterflies?
  • Why bother to strimmer-blitz all the far flung corners behind the shed or compost bins when you could leave them to their own devices and allow nature to move in?
  • Pile all the Autumn leaves up somewhere suitably salubrious and you could even have a traditional Hedgehog hibernation station.
  • Leave a sheet of corrugated iron in a quiet, sunny spot and you could be giving a home to Slow-worms.
  • Piles of pruned branches, logs or rocks in a quieter part of the garden make welcome habitats for everyone from Dunnocks to Frogs and Toads.

And remember the vast majority of this mob are pretty formidable predators, who’ll undoubtedly earn their keep farther down the food chain.

Most importantly though, once you’ve let the wild into your life, it’s vital for you to take a little time to appreciate it. Sitting quietly on a log, sipping tea and watching the birds, or taking a close up look at the insects attracted to your flowers, whether cultivated or wild,  or even just lying on the grass with your eyes closed, listening to the rustling, buzzing twittering sounds all around you, is more or less guaranteed to put a smile on your face.