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|Mammals: May is the month in which badger cubs start venturing above ground and they can be found playing close to the sett. Similarly, foxes are very active at this time of year – the adults are busy trying to find food for their cubs and are more likely to be seen out hunting during the daytime. Fox cubs grow quickly and, as they grow, they hone their hunting skills by play-fighting with their littermates. These games can be so absorbing that the young foxes will sometimes come within a few feet of a quiet observer. There are also young stoats and weasels to be found this month, sometimes seen travelling in family groups. Their dancing play is mesmerising to watch. As the nights begin to warm up the hedgehog breeding season will get into full swing, with sharp huffing noises emanating from the garden as amorous males try to win over choosy females. On the subject of hedgehogs I was shown an interesting video of a pair of hedgehogs fighting at a feeding station in a garden in Jersey. I’ve never seen such ferocity among hedgehogs before and would be interested to hear if any other readers have similar experiences. Thanks to Sudi Chiang and the Jersey Wild Hedgehog Forum for the video (left). If you’re gardening over the next few weeks, please take a few minutes to check long grass for sleeping hedgehogs before mowing or strimming.|
Late May is also when deer begin giving birth to their kids, calves and fawns (depending on species) and, interestingly, I received a couple of reports of newborn deer in April: a newborn sika deer calf was photographed lying by the side of a gravel track on 21st April in northern England, and a roe doe pictured washing her kid a few days later in Devon (right). Normally we don’t expect to see baby deer this early in the year, although there is always some variation around the peak birth times. There is some suggestion that the very mild winter has allowed females to remain in better condition and drop their young earlier in the spring. I’m not convinced, if I’m honest, because deer reproductive biology is more complicated than that, but I have no explanation better than the photographers being in the right place at the right time to see very early births. I’d be interested to hear if your local deer have given birth early. In the event that you come across a baby deer lying in the vegetation please do not touch it. It is perfectly normal for mothers to leave their young hiding among tall grass and bracken during the first couple of weeks of their life and it is very rare for a mother to abandon her offspring. Every year many deer fawns are taken into wildlife rescue centres by well-meaning but uninformed members of the public who think the youngsters are in need of help. Only intervene if the deer is injured, otherwise do not touch the fawn and just leave it where you found it; its mother will be nearby.
If there was a lot of squirrel activity in your local park at the start of the year it’s a fair bet that there will be squirrel kittens around soon; winter mating typically leads to kittens born in late April or early May. Underground, the mole breeding season is coming to an end with most females having already given birth, although the young won’t be seen above ground for another month or so. Many brown hares will also have had their first litter by now – females average three litters per year during a breeding season running from February to October.
Birds: I heard my first cuckoo of the year on my birthday walk last month and they’re now a fairly common sound here in the New Forest. Indeed, May is a good month for listening to birds as well as watching them, with the chirruping whistle of the nightingale, the bubbling churr of the nightjar, and the treacly spring song of the blackbird to lift your spirits. White throats are busy singing away on gorse and heathland here in the south, as are Dartford warblers. Plenty of song from robins, dunnocks, chaffinches, wrens and chiffchaffs too. Tawny owlets can be found branching now, while most other owl species will be feeding nest-bound chicks, making May a good month for owl-spotting in general. Unfortunately, wet and windy conditions over the winter may have taken a heavy toll on our owls and the Barn Owl Trust are interested in hearing from you if you’ve seen owls of any species this spring. Their website has a comprehensive identification guide followed by an online form that you can use to quickly and easily record your sighting. Their site also has a good guide on what to do if you find an owl out of the nest. Please remember that tawny owlets are very precocious and will branch at a young age, so just being out of the nest is not necessarily an issue.
Based on the photos on my Facebook newsfeed over the past few days, many garden birds have already produced their first litter. I’ve seen photos of recently-fledged blackbirds and there are lots of robins darting around with beaks full of worms suggesting they’re feeding chicks. There are plenty of goslings and ducklings to be found now and great crested grebes will either be in the final stages of incubation or carrying their humbug-striped chicks around on their backs, so keep an eye out if you visit your local lake or pond. I’ve seen some early reports of cygnets last month and no doubt there are more to come this month. Most people will have noticed that swifts, martins and swallows are now back in the UK and for the last several days we’ve had swifts screaming over our house as they search for insects. Here in the New Forest the chiffchaffs, redstarts and tree pipits have arrived, while we’ve yet to receive any substantial numbers of blackcaps, willow and wood warblers. Other species around during May include stonechats, skylarks, hobbys, winchats, lapwings, geese, turnstones, and spotted flycatchers.
Amphibians and Reptiles: All our reptile and amphibian species are active during this month, many on a quest for mates. A male adder’s first priority upon coming out of hibernation is to produce sperm in readiness for the emergence of the females later in the spring – hence he spent the past two months basking, without feeding. The males will now have left their hibernacula (the places in which they overwinter) and will be actively searching for females with which to mate. Early May is a good month to see adders dancing (a fight in which two adult males intertwine, each trying to push the other one down) and mating, the male and female curled up together. The National Amphibian and Reptile Recording Scheme is looking for records of adders, so please report any that you see via their website. May is also the start of the sand lizard breeding season and the males are sporting vibrant green colours at the moment (left). Unfortunately, sand lizards are a rare sight in the UK and currently restricted to a few isolated areas of sandy heathland in Dorset, Hampshire and Surrey as well as the sand dunes of Wales and Lancashire. Closer to home, the tadpoles in our pond are very active at the moment, and as the weather warms up their growth rate will increase. Keep an eye out for tadpoles developing legs; this signals a sharp increase in protein requirement and their diet switches to a meat-based one.
Invertebrates: There is a great deal of bee activity at the moment, which is great to see. In fact it seems that some of Britain’s bees have been busier than usual over the last few months such that one beekeeper in Devon is selling an unusual ivy-flavoured honey. Ordinarily, bees hibernate during the winter months because ambient temperatures drop below the critical 7 Celsius (45 Fahrenheit) that bees need in order to fly. It appears, however, that last winter was mild enough to allow the bees to gather pollen from late-blooming ivy. The bees at Quince Honey Farm in Devon have produced enough of this so-called ‘winter honey’ (that, according to an article in the Daily Telegraph last month “tastes like ivy smells”) to fill 22,000 jars. If you want to attract bees to your garden, think about planting some nectar-rich species of plant. Typically I just stand in the garden centre and see which flowers the bees are attracted to – hawthorn, hellebores, rosemary, bugle and viburnum are among a few of the bee-attracting spring plants you might want to consider.
Butterfly-wise, I have seen a couple of ‘blues’ (too distant to assess species), a couple of very active ‘whites’, some brimstones, a peacock and a couple of speckled woods. Based on reports from friends other species are around (e.g. orange-tips, green hairstreak, etc.), but they’re not particularly commonplace yet. Pearl-bordered fritillaries and the elusive purple emperor butterfly should also be on the wing this month. There seems to be plenty of spider activity at the moment and there was a sizeable female false widow spider making her way across our driveway gates last night. Wolf spiders are abundant now, although I’ve yet to see any carrying egg sacs. If you’re in your garden after dark on mild nights this month and have a patio or any brick piles, look around carefully with a torch for the impressive pale pink-orange woodlouse spiders hunting their namesakes. A few other species to keep an eye out for this month include maybugs (aka common cockchafers), the elongate green and gold-spotted green tiger beetle, soldier beetles, nest-building wasps, hoverflies, well-armoured Minotaur and stag beetles, and the variously decorated longhorn beetles.
Unfortunately for gardeners the very mild winter seems to have resulted in a bumper crop of slugs this spring. Certainly I have counted 30+ slugs, many very small, around our pond on nights when I’ve been out after dark in the last couple of weeks. Slugs and snails hibernate when temperatures drop below about 5 Celsius (41 F), but the very mild winter months saw average temperatures hovering around 8 C (46 F) and meant that these molluscs were able to remain active, feeding and breeding when they’d normally be in torpor. At the end of last month, conservation charity BugLife predicted a 10% increase in the slug population this spring. Granted, 10% doesn’t sound like a lot, but given that the ‘average’ British garden is estimated to be home to about 20,000 slugs in late spring even small percentages add up. Generally it seems that warmer winters and wetter summers are likely to allow slugs and snails to remain active throughout the year. It will be interesting to see whether a boom in slug and snail populations bodes well for their predators, such as slowworms, thrushes and glowworms.
Plants and Fungi: There are some spectacular bluebell displays around at the moment as well as plenty of fruit blossom. Dog violet and campion add a splash of purple and pink, respectively, to our meadows and roadside verges this month. May is also a great time for orchid-spotting with early spider and bird’s-nest orchids, the dazzling-pink lady orchid and the aptly-named early purple orchid in bloom. If you’re confident at identifying wildflowers, or are keen to learn and have some spare time, you might be interested in joining the team of volunteers surveying kilometre-square plots of Britain’s countryside as part of the National Plant Monitoring Scheme. If you’re heading for the coast this month, spring squill, English scurvy grass and common thrift (or ‘sea pink’, above) are among the plants on display. Fungi-wise this month, keep an eye out for glistening ink-caps, false deathcaps, chicken of the woods and large parasol mushrooms.
Teaching native species to fear introduced predators
The introduction of species into ecosystems into which they did not evolve has caused problems the world over. In Britain alone it is estimated that there are about two thousand non-native species now established and impacting a wide range of ecosystems. Last month we looked at the spread of the Chinese (or Reeves’) muntjac deer and grey squirrels, which are two well-known but typically relatively passive invasive species in Britain. The situation can be more significant where exotic predators have been introduced and there are few more well-studied examples than the case of the red fox (right) in Australia.
The first documented release of red foxes into Australia occurred in Melbourne during 1845, and many more introduction attempts followed. It is widely believed, however, that most of these introductions were unsuccessful and it wasn't until foxes were imported to Victoria in 1871 that the species finally took hold. Unfortunately, the fox is a supremely flexible carnivore, which means there are few environments to which it cannot adapt. This is part of what makes it number 99 on the IUCN's top 100 most damagingly invasive species. Its effect on indigenous animals, which evolved without such a predator in their midst, can potentially be devastating. In Australia, the native mammals weighing less than five kilograms (11 lbs) seem particularly vulnerable to fox predation. Some biologists have suggested that the combined impact of foxes and feral domestic cats is the reason 80% of programmes aimed at reintroducing native mammals fail. Indeed, for decades the Australian government has been trying to eradicate foxes from the country by various means, including trapping, shooting, poisoning, immunocontraception (making the foxes infertile) and the reintroduction of dingos (which displace foxes), all with limited success. A recent study by an Australian-based team led by Katherine Moseby at the University of Adelaide suggests, however, that it might be possible to teach native species to avoid alien predators such as foxes.
Normally animals learn to recognise potential predators and take evasive action to avoid being caught – those that survive pass on these predator-avoidance behaviours to subsequent generations. Where this doesn’t happen, usually because the prey species hasn’t encountered a predator before and thus doesn’t see it as a threat, we call it prey naiveté. Typically, the plan is to remove the predator, but this may not necessarily be helpful in the long run because the prey never develop an anti-predator response and this leaves them vulnerable if the predator returns. The scientists, writing in the journal Evolutionary Applications in February, argue that reintroduction success can be increased by exposing the animals to carefully controlled levels of ‘alien’ predators in their pre-release enclosures. This, they suggest, will drive the animals to develop appropriate anti-predator responses. There are some genetic considerations - namely a loss of genetic diversity - but this happens anyway when entire populations are lost. There are also some ethical considerations. Indeed, Moseby and her colleagues are candid in their acceptance that some of the animals to be reintroduced will be killed by the predators, but point out that crucially some will survive and this will drive natural selection towards a species better able to coexist with exotic predators. Learning is, they argue, improved because the stimuli are real; the exposed population is wild and cultural transmission can occur during all life stages. They explain:
"We assume that some prey will be attacked and some may be killed. Importantly, we assume that some prey will directly survive encounters with predators, while others might have the opportunity to learn vicariously through others' experiences. These are realistic assumptions."
The authors suggest that radio-collared sterilised predators could be introduced onto predator-free islands or into large fenced enclosures for the programmes. Monitoring would be required to keep tabs on the predators removing them if it looks like they’re going to eradicate the prey population.
Reference: Moseby, K.E. et al. (2016). Harnessing natural selection to tackle the problem of prey naïveté. Evol. Appl. 9(2): 334-343.
Giving grey squirrels a helping hand
Everyone knows that humans introduced grey squirrels to the UK from America in 1800s and, since then, they've spread throughout much of the UK, right? There is a report of a release of grey squirrels in Denbighshire, North Wales, during 1828, but this cannot be confirmed. The first verifiable record of this species being released into the wilds of the UK was in 1876 when a Mr. T. V. Brocklehurst released a pair of greys into Henbury Park near Macclesfield in Cheshire, after their attraction as pets waned. While we know that grey squirrels are a highly invasive species and able to spread themselves around, only recently have we begun to understand how the population has spread.
Last month we covered some research by Lisa Signorile and her colleagues at Imperial College London suggesting that humans have been unwittingly transporting grey squirrels around the country, helping them colonise new populations more quickly than they might otherwise. Signorile and her co-workers found that neighbouring groups weren’t necessarily always related, sometimes related to much more distant populations – Scottish and New Forest populations, for example. These findings tell us that people had moved some individuals around, but not what impact this had on the overall spread of the grey squirrel in the UK. So, the biologists also looked at the how genetically distinct the populations in the UK are. If a population spreads from a few introduction sites you expect a lot of interbreeding and this reduces the overall genetic diversity by mixing the genes.
Signorile and her colleagues analysed the genetic variation in 381 squirrels from historical (held at the Natural History Museum in London) and modern populations in the UK. Their results show that Britain's grey squirrel populations are mosaic. In other words, the rapid and large scale expansion of greys in the UK didn't come about from a few released individuals breeding and spreading out as a 'wave'. Rather, it has been promoted by repeated movements and releases of small groups around the country. In their paper to this month’s issue of the journal Diversity and Distributions the biologists explain:
"The genetic structure of grey squirrels currently is represented by a mosaic of different clusters that expanded to fill the gaps between translocations and shows limited interchanges of genetic material."
While this may sound generally like bad news, it does also imply that grey squirrels aren’t the all-conquering colonisers that we thought; they’re actually not that good at mixing with other populations. This may offer some hope for red squirrel conservation projects in the UK.
Reference: Signorile, A.L. et al. (2016). Mixture or mosaic? Genetic patterns in UK grey squirrels support a human mediated ‘long-jump’ invasion mechanism. Div. Distrib. 22(5): 566-577.
New EU legislation on invasive species
Concluding the invasive theme this month you would be forgiven for having missed a new piece of legislation that slipped largely below the radar of the media. The European Union has adopted innovative legislation that some scientists think could signal a step-change in the global response to the threats posed by biological invasions.
On 14th April 2014 the European Parliament adopted, with a large majority (606-36), a text on how countries should respond to the ecological threat posed by invasive species. The text was originally submitted for review in September 2013 then reworked based on some significant criticism. On 1st January 2015 the legislation came into force in all member states as EU Regulation 1143/2014 (Prevention and Management of the Introduction and Spread of Invasive Alien Species). In a paper to the journal Biological Invasions last year a team of biologists, led by the Invasive Species Specialist Group’s Piero Genovesi, explained:
“The backbone of the legislation is the list of harmful invasive species (a ‘black list’ approach), namely ‘‘Invasive Alien Species of Union Concern,’’ selected only among species that are alien to the EU and that are identified as invasive through a detailed risk assessment. For the species included in this list there will be automatic stringent provisions for preventing introduction into the EU, including a ban of import, trade, possession, breeding, transport, use, and release into the environment. In case of detection of an ‘‘Invasive Alien Species of Union Concern,’’ European States will be obliged to immediately attempt eradication whenever feasible.”
The legislation also gives member states 18 months (so until June this year) to set up a monitoring scheme to speed up action were an invasive species to be detected in their country. This regulation also bans holders (e.g. zoos and private collectors) from keeping, breeding, transporting and trading species on the list. In other words, these species will have to be phased out largely by breeding prevention. There were a couple of exaggerated articles in the tabloids last Christmas about zoos having to euthanize species such as raccoons, which are included on the list, but in fact the legislation does not specify how the population reduction will happen, leaving room to accommodate the requirements of individual species.
Currently there are 50 species on the provision list of invasive species – 25 plants, 12 vertebrates and 13 invertebrates – including Reeves’ muntjac, raccoons, grey squirrels, and Asian hornets. An additional 46 species have been proposed for inclusion. The inclusion of a species on the black list must be approved by the Committee of Representatives of the Member States by qualified majority. Each species has, or will have, a comprehensive risk assessment covering their introduction history and spread as well as known and perceived ecological impacts.
As with any legislation, this is not without its problems. No specific funding has been allocated to support the scheme, the legislation falls short of imposing Australia-like biosecurity measures, and some conservation groups argue that the list of species is far too small. Furthermore, if the British public votes to exit from the European Union next month, the legislation (indeed, much conservation legislation) may be repealed by the UK government. This does, nonetheless, seem to be a step in the right direction.
Reference: Genovesi, P. et al. (2015). EU adopts innovative legislation on invasive species: a step towards a global response to biological invasions? Biol. Invas. 17: 1307-1311.
As always, I love hearing from readers; any queries or comments regarding the information on the site can be sent in using the addresses on the Contact page. (Note: So: Some website questions are answered on the FAQ, while many animal-related questions are covered in the Q/A). Photos can be e-mailed to a dedicated e-mail address - please keep them coming and don't forget to check out my Photos Needed page. I'm also interested in hearing any reports of unusual behaviour in any of the animals featured on this site, or interactions between humans and wildlife. Thanks as always for your continued patience and support. Finally, thanks to Sudi Chang and South West Deer Rescue for letting me use their video/photo this month.
Okay, for those of you that are new to the site, let's take it from the top!
What is Wildlife Online?
Essentially, WLOL is an educational website about British wildlife. The site contains profiles of various British animal species, with new articles in preparation all the time. The site also has articles looking at wildlife-related subjects, including hunting and animal emotions. This site is purely a hobby of mine; it does not generate any money or contain any advertising and, for the time being at least, I am happy for it to stay that way.
What does Wildlife Online aim to achieve?
Why create a website when there are books and TV programmes about
Books can be a fantastic resource and I can't imagine being without my library. Not all libraries are, however, equally well stocked, and not everyone has the funds to splash out on what are often very expensive wildlife books (especially those written by scientists). More importantly, much of the scientific research never makes it out of the journals into books and TV shows. Similarly, many of the early books -- which contain some of the pioneering work on the species -- are now long out of print and can be difficult or expensive to track down. Books have the 'luxury' of being able to devote their entire contents to a particular species, covering all aspects of its life history. Television, by contrast, is a much more limited and variable medium: the programme editor(s) has to create a show that is likely to hold the viewers' attention and appeal to a very wide audience. The result is that, although some reach this compromise very well, many documentaries focus heavily on the 'wow factor' (multitudinous slow motion shots of Great whites leaping out of the water in pursuit of seals, for example) and this often comes at the inevitable expense of the information about the animal. Finally, both books and TV programmes go out of date quite quickly; new research is being conducted all the time. Consequently, a website is an ideal and dynamic intermediate - it offers the opportunity to provide a decent amount of information about the subject that can be updated at the metaphorical drop-of-a-hat as any new research is published.
Why include so much information?
I honestly believe that if a job is worth doing, it's worth doing well. There are hundreds of websites with brief species profiles and if that's all WLOL offered there would be little point to it. I understand and appreciate that some people find being confronted with large volumes of text very daunting while others are of the 'too long; didn't read' mind-set and will thus be turned off by the amount of text facing them. I have tried to remedy this as far as possible via two avenues: there is a Speed Read section with a brief profile of each species featured in a main article; and each article has been 'virtually split', with the aid of hyperlinks, into sections that allow people to easily jump to the information they're looking for. Ultimately, I want to provide as much information as is feasible in order to provide the reader with the clearest appraisal of each species or topic; I hope that most readers approve of this approach.
Why haven't you included a complete bibliography?
My intention with WLOL is to provide the information in an accessible format, which means that anyone should be able to read an article and understand the information in it. Consequently, I didn't want to format it as a scientific paper because the current format allows for a much more informal approach and writing style which, I hope, will appeal to a wider audience. Most people should find enough information in the article (I typically provide the name or one or more of the authors and the journal and year) to track down the original scientific paper. When I take information from books, I always give the name of the author(s) and the full title of the book for easy reference. I am also happy to provide full details of any of the references upon request.
Are you really qualified to do this?
I'm certainly not an expert on any of the subjects presented on this site. The articles stem from my varied interests in natural history and biological sciences. In terms of qualifications, I trained as a scientist (studying natural sciences at degree and postgraduate level) and all I really do is interpret information, blend it with associated research and personal observation, and present it in what I hope is an accessible format. Unless specifically stated, I do not claim any of the information on this site to be my own research. I have built relationships with some of the many diligent researchers who have produced the data that I use, and I am happy either to recommend an expert or provide my own opinions on a subject.
As a final note, I want to make a quick reference to the quality of the material on the site. The great French philosopher and mathematician, Rene Descartes, once said: "If you would be a real seeker of truth, you first must be willing to doubt as far as possible all things." This is very sage advice, especially when it comes to believing what you read on the Internet. Most Internet sites (indeed, some books and TV shows too), including this one, have no form of peer-review (i.e. nobody with experience of the topic checks the site for accuracy); consequently pretty much anyone can have their own little corner of cyberspace and information can make it onto websites that is either misguided, or downright false! When creating material for this site I take every care to ensure that the information I present is accurate. Invariably errors will creep in; typos are almost inevitable (although each article goes through several levels of proof reading before it appears online) and research is always underway on the species featured here, so the data can go out of date almost overnight. Each page has regular (ish!) reviews, however, during which I update the information, adding details of new findings and taking out that which is now thought highly unlikely. You can see most of the books I have used in the preparation of this site on the Recommended Reading page and I have provided links to some of the most interesting sites I came across during my research – these can be found under the appropriate sub-heading on the Links page.
Anyway, I digress.... I hope you enjoy looking around the site and I hope equally that you get something worthwhile out of it. Any comments, suggestions or (constructive) criticisms are welcome via e-mail - appropriate addresses can be found on the Contact page.
DISCLAIMER: All the photographs and artwork on this site are either my own work or have been donated by readers. All images remain property of their authors and, if you wish to reproduce any of the pictures, consent must be granted by the appropriate person - requests can be directed via myself or see FAQ. For more details on the content of this site, please see the full WLOL Disclaimer.