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Content Updated: 1st May 2017

SEASONAL UPDATE: May 2017

Spring lambs

April got off to a glorious start, with blue skies and sunshine across all but the far north of the UK for much of the first week. Thanks to an airflow from the near continent, much of the south and midlands of England were basking in temperatures of 20C (68F) by the second weekend; the seasonal average for this time of year is about 12C (54F). Sunshine and progressively lightening winds saw a surge in the activity of bees, butterflies and hoverflies in the garden in the week preceding Easter. Unfortunately, the spring-like weather wasn’t to last and at the start of Easter week saw a change to a more northerly airflow, bringing temperatures back down to the seasonal average, with a few wintry showers in the north. Indeed, the end of April saw some unseasonably cold weather hit the UK; Aviemore in the Scottish Highlands waking up to 9cm (3.5 in.) of snow on the 25th and temperatures were widely in single Celsius. With this Arctic airflow came some very gusty winds. It remains to be seen what impact this unsettled spring weather will have on Britain’s wildlife, but the cold temperatures and blustery conditions have reduced insect activity and a substantial amount of blossom seems to have been stripped from the trees. Blossom is an energetically expensive tissue for a plant to produce and if it is lost before the flowers are pollinated it cannot be regrown until the following spring. At the time of writing the models are predicting high pressure establishing itself over Britain as we head into May, and this will result in a change to a southwesterly airflow, which should see temperatures rise.

If you want to get out and about this month, as usual, the Wildlife Trusts have a series of nature-themed events up and down the country, as do the RSPB. If you feel like being proactive and live near the coast, Surfers Against Sewage are looking for people to organise cleans of their local beaches – details here. The Forestry Commission are also running a series of events this month, details of which can be found here.

European rabbitMammals: Fox cubs are out and about now and may start following their parents into nearby parks and gardens as they begin to explore in the vicinity of their earth; this makes May a great month to watch them. Badger cubs are also to be found above ground towards the end of this month and a dawn or dusk stakeout at your local badger sett is likely to be rewarded with cubs. Brown hares are very active at the moment, with some rapidly growing leverets to be found, although the increasingly tall vegetation makes spotting them difficult. Closer to home things are heating up for your local hedgehogs, with the frenetic huffing and snuffling associated with courtship to be heard after dark now.

Your local red and fallow deer will have lost their antlers by now and the process of re-growing them will have begun in earnest. Roe, by contrast, will now be in ‘hard horn’ (i.e. having shed their antler velvet) and will be starting to re-establish territories. Many of the females will be heavily pregnant and the first births will happen towards the end of the month. With that in mind, if you come across a baby deer lying in the undergrowth, please do not touch it or take it to a rescue centre. It is exceptionally rare for deer mothers to abandon their offspring and perfectly normal for them to leave the youngster lying up in a secluded spot while they feed elsewhere. The mother knows exactly where her calf is and will return periodically to suckle it.

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.

Finally, May is a good month for rabbit-watching. May is a peak month for rabbit pregnancies and most colonies will have youngsters in residence now. Despite how it may appear at first glance, rabbits are highly territorial and use scent to mark out the boundaries of their core areas. Each population (colony) of rabbits is subdivided into several distinct groups; these normally consist of four or five unrelated males (bucks) guarding up to about eight, generally related, females (does), although the social system varies from pairs to up to 20 individuals, depending on the population density. The group will maintain a core area, typically around a breeding warren, that will be defended from neighbouring groups and the boundaries of which are marked with scent. If scent doesn’t work to keep intruders out of the home range, rabbits will fight. Before any direct physical contact is initiated, however, the aggressors will use a variety of body language to convey their intentions. A rabbit with ears upright and facing forward, for example, is relaxed, but when the ears turn outwards it indicates that the rabbit is annoyed or tense, while ears facing backwards is a sign that the rabbit is about to attack. A flicking of the back feet is also used to signal annoyance, while high-pitched squeals and the thumping of a back foot are used to indicate alarm. Fights involve combatants jumping and twisting while each attempts to bite or scratch the other. Dominant males from adjacent social groups within the same colony will maintain their territory using a series of displays, including parallel running along, and scraping the ground at, the boundary.

In a fascinating article in BBC Wildlife back in 2007, University of East Anglia rabbit biologist Diana Bell described how new social groups form through ‘social budding’. When the number of females in the current group exceeds about eight, some of them start restricting their activities to the edge of the territory and it becomes progressively more difficult for the dominant buck to defend both groups. At this point, an immigrant buck will often challenge for dominance of the tearaway does and a new social group is born within the colony. Dr Bell also noted that if the dominant buck is lost from the group, the testes of a fortunate subordinate will dramatically increase in size within a few days and he will take over.

Rabbits – and particularly young rabbits – are a powerful draw for predators, so it’s worth finding a secluded spot by your local rabbit colony and sitting and waiting; odds are it won’t be long before a fox, weasel, stoat, buzzard or, come dusk, badger arrives.

Tawny owlets in New ForestBirds: May is a great month for bird-watching and, more specifically, for bird listening! The return of the cuckoo, the chirruping-whistle of the nightingale, the bubbling churr of the nightjar and the treacly spring song of the blackbird lift the spirit. Tawny owlets can be found branching (right), while most other owl species will be feeding nest-bound chicks, making this a good month for owl-spotting in general. Unfortunately, strong winds and rain aren’t conducive to hunting for prey if you’re an owl. Many of our garden birds are now either sitting on eggs or rushing about finding food for their first brood of fledglings – we watched a male blackbird doing just that on our lawn last weekend. I have seen some excellent shots on my Facebook newsfeed over the past couple of weeks of newly fledged robins and long-tailed tits. Towards the end of this month is a good time to look for recently hatched cygnets and great crested grebe chicks. Most people will have noticed that swifts, martins and swallows are now back in the UK, and other species around during May include stonechats, skylarks, hobbys, winchats, lapwings, geese, turnstones, spotted flycatchers, and redstarts.

Reptiles and amphibians: Most of the amphibian breeding activity has ceased now with spawn having developed into tadpoles. May is, however, a good month for reptile spotting as we’re now into the breeding season for most species. As the days get warmer and sunrise earlier it can be tricky to catch more than a fleeting glance of many reptiles, as they need to spend less time basking before moving off to hunt. That said, early mornings can still be a good time to go in search of adders, grass snakes and, if you’re very lucky, the rare and elusive smooth snake. Adders can also be seen ‘dancing’ at this time of year, where two males wrestle as each tries to push the other down while  fighting over access to females. The National Amphibian and Reptile Recording Scheme is looking for records of adders, so please report any that you see via their website.

The slowworm breeding season begins in late-April/early-May, although females generally won’t ovulate until June. Studies in the lab have shown that male slow-worms can recognise and are drawn to the scent trails left by females, suggesting that they may locate their potential mates by smell. Rival males will chase each other, pushing and biting. These fights are often seen out in the open, while copulation tends to happen under cover. Once a male has located a receptive female he bites the back of her head or neck and they intertwine their bodies, eventually pressing their cloacas (the vent leading to the reproductive tract) together for the male to pass sperm to the female. Courtship can be a protracted process and the pair may remain intertwined for up to 10 hours before the pair copulate. Slowworms are polygynous and females will often mate with several males during the breeding season. May is also a good month to go in search of sand lizards; the males are at their most vibrant, sporting a bright green and brown marbled pattern, as they focus on breeding. Unfortunately, sand lizards are confined to heathland in the south of England, which rather limits your opportunity to find these amazing little critters.

ThriftInvertebrates: There are plenty of spiders around at the moment, and I found a couple of large false widows and a few woodlouse spiders while moving some logs last weekend. I’ve also seen a couple of ‘balls’ of garden spiderlings – these tiny yellow and black spiders start off grouped together in a ping-pong size ball and then spread out to set up mini webs in the nearby vegetation. There are plenty of wolf spiders around, and while weeding at the end of last month I spotted one carrying an egg sac; these will become increasingly common as we move through May. Butterfly-wise, I have seen a couple of ‘blues’ (too distant to assess species, although one was on the holly bush in our garden, which may be indicative), 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. Pond-life is moving apace at this time of year and a dip in your local pond should reveal such delights as whirligig beetles, pond skaters, the great pond snail, and diving beetles as well as the ferocious dragonfly nymphs and water scorpions.

Plants and fungi: Bluebells have been around for the last couple of weeks and there is still pink campion, and even a few primroses and violets in roadside banks – the latter have also shown up in our garden for the first time in the five years we’ve lived there. In spite of the strong winds this week there still seems to be some blossom left on the trees. If you fancy seeking out some plants this month, why not brush up on your orchid identification: early spider orchids, bird’s-nest orchids, the dazzling-pink lady orchid and the aptly-named early purple orchid are to be found in May. While you’re out, you may also want to help survey the state of Britain’s wildflowers – PlantLife are running their National Wildflower Monitoring Scheme. If you’re heading for the coast this month, spring squill, English scurvy grass and common thrift (or ‘sea pink’ - left) are among the plants on display.

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Discovery of the Month – Feral populations may offer a lifeline to their endangered kin

Chinese water deer with fawnThese days the problems associated with introducing animals into places in which they haven’t evolved are well known. In a few instances, these introduced ‘feral’ or ‘non-native’ species appear to cause little harm. Unfortunately in the majority of cases they can cause considerable damage to the ecosystem, and we call these invasive species. The International Union for the Conservation of Nature, or IUCN for short, manages the Global Invasive Species Database (GISD) which currently lists 364 species of animal and 467 species of plant that are invasive somewhere in the world. In 2013 the ICUN created their ‘top 100’ worst invasive species list and it includes some familiar faces, including red deer (Cervus elaphus), the domestic cat (Felis catus), Japanese knotweed (Polygonum cuspidatum) and the red fox (Vulpes vulpes).

In most cases, non-native species are seen as pests to be eradicated because they compete with native species, sometimes even replace native species, compete with livestock for grazing, damage crops or property and/or cause damage to certain habitats. A quandary arises, however, when a species is invasive in one country but threatened in its native range. In such cases, eradication of the invasive population may put the species’ survival in jeopardy. Indeed, in a paper in the journal Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment in February, Luke Gibson at the University of Hong Kong and Ding Li Yong at the Australian National University suggest that invasive populations may hold the key to helping provide ‘new blood’ for threatened populations or removing hunting or commercial pressure from native individuals.

Gibson and Yong point to cases such as that of the yellow-crested cockatoo (Cacatua sulphurea), populations of which have crashed in its native range of Indonesia and East Timor because of the demand for these birds as pets, both locally and worldwide. During the 1940s this species was released in Hong Kong and Singapore, where a sizeable feral population of this otherwise threatened bird has become established . A similar situation exists for the banteng (Bos javanicus), a species of wild cow native to Southeast Asia, where populations have declined significantly as a result of habitat loss. Following their introduction to Australia in 1849, however, the banteng population has thrived and is now larger than all the subpopulations known from SE Asia combined. Closer to home, the Chinese water deer (Hydropotes inermis - right), a small deer species native to China and North Korea, was introduced to Britain in the 1940s and the population is now estimated to stand at about 10,000, probably more than 10% of the global population. In their native range water deer have suffered population declines through poaching, habitat loss and demand for Chinese medicine. Indeed, overall, the ICUN suggests that almost 60% of the species listed as “threatened” are at risk because of demand for biological resource use – i.e. humans hunting and trapping animals or gathering plants for commercial use.

Arabian oryxIn their paper, Gibson and Yong suggest that introduced populations have the potential to help their threatened kin in three significant ways. Firstly, they offer a source for potential reintroductions to their native range – an “ark for future conservation intervention” as they describe it. There have been a few cases where this has already happened, albeit with mixed success. Arabian oryx (Oryx leucoryx - left) were reintroduced to the Arabian Peninsula in the 80s and 90s after poaching caused the extinction of the wild population. From 40 animals the population had grown ten-fold by the mid-1990s, but a resumption in poaching resulted in major declines in recent years to the point where the population is no longer considered viable. By contrast, wild populations of Pere David’s deer (Elaphurus davidianus) were almost wiped out by hunting, but successful reintroductions in the mid-1980s have seen the population bounce back and continue to do well.

In addition to acting as a source of new blood for potential conservation programmes, feral populations can also provide suitable study subjects that help us better understand the species in their native range. Chinese water deer in Britain are a good example of this. Several university students have earned their Masters or Ph.D. studying populations of water deer held in captivity in Britain, while pioneering work by deer biologist Arnold Cooke on their biology and spread in the Cambridgeshire fens has added so much to our understanding of this otherwise poorly-studied species. These data provide a more detailed picture of the natural history of this species and better prepares us to try and conserve them in their native range.

Finally, Gibson and Yong suggest that naturalised populations could also serve as an alternative supply to demands such as the pet trade. A case in point here is that of the Cuban iguana (Cyclura nubile). This lizard has suffered serious population declines in its native range, while a population introduced to Isla Margueyes off Puerto Rico is thriving. It is currently thought that every individual of this iguana species currently in captivity originated from this introduced population, thereby reducing pressure on the native populations. Gibson and Yong are, however, cautious in their approach, writing:

Sustainable trade of these introduced populations could provide a viable substitute for the capture of wild individuals, which is depleting populations in their native ranges. However, conservationists must consider the risk of elevating demand and poaching of native populations that might result from the harvest of introduced populations. Only in those scenarios where non-native harvest does not elevate risks posed to native populations should this solution be considered.”

To the best of my knowledge, with the possibility of hedgehogs being translocated from Uist to the UK mainland, there have been no reintroduction programmes involving individuals from feral populations, so the feasibility of Gibson and Yong’s suggestion remains to be seen. It does, however, imply that countries should perhaps look a managing, rather than exterminating, certain invasive species.

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Profile of the Month – UK Wild Otter Trust founder and chairman Dave Webb

Tell us a little about yourself
Uk Wild Otter Trust logoI am based in North Devon on the edge of the beautiful Exmoor National Park and enjoy wildlife photography and conservation that benefits all species but specialise in the European otter – Lutra lutra. I am the founder and chair of the UK Wild Otter Trust and I sit on the Otter Welfare Advisory Group and the Otter Predation Advisory Group, as well as holding full membership within the IUCN Otter Specialist Group.

What how did the Wild Otter Trust come about?
As I said, I was born and bred in the country and my family were keen anglers so I have always been around fishing and wildlife. Probably, if it had not been for angling, I may have not seen my very first otter. I am talking about well over 40 years ago now so as you can imagine, otters were not as common as they are today, nor were stillwater fisheries. As the otter increased along with other fisheries being set up, it became very apparent that there was the potential for conflict between the two. What was missing was a link that could understand both aspects of what was soon to be a massive issue, both financially and morally. I then brought UKWOT out into the public view. It was timed well as it has proved to be a very important link and has built solid working relationships between us and fishery owners and anglers. That has been very important.

Eurasian otterWhat do you think are the most important considerations when it comes to resolving disputes between people and wildlife?
Understanding and listening to their views, even if you do not agree with them, and being prepared to acknowledge that there are issues between otters and fisheries. You get nowhere by denying any problems exist so that is very important and at the same time builds trust between the two sides. Working with them as opposed to against them is key with controversial subjects.

What do you like most about the work you do?
Being able to support and educate fisheries and anglers about otter ecology and behaviour. Working with sensible anglers that appreciate both otter and angling conservation. It’s important for the future of our kids.

What is the least appealing aspect of your work?
Dealing with dead otters from RTAs and anglers that refuse to listen to reason or work together to find a sensible balance.

If you had to choose one thing you’ve learned about your subject during the course of your research that stands out as particularly fascinating/valuable/weird, what would it be?
I quickly discovered that you can watch 50 otters at the same place, same time and observe the same behaviour from them all then suddenly, one comes along and does something totally out of the box! I also know that if we never had otters in the river systems lots of other wildlife would suffer. My local otters are now starting to display kinship behaviour as I know that they are related; this would never have happened a few years ago. It’s fascinating to see this and is could be a sign that territories are becoming full – research is ongoing but it’s looking good.

How can people find out more?
You can visit our website at www.ukwildottertrust.org or join our Facebook page UK WILD OTTER TRUST.

Please report any dead otter sightings to the Trust via their website.

If you're interested in getting involved and being featured on here later this year, please get in touch via the normal route.

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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 and thanks to Steph Powley for letting me use her Arabian oryx photo to accompany this month's update.

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WildlifeonlineOkay, 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?
The ultimate goal of the website is to be useful. My intention has always been to provide un-biased, accurate information that’s accessible to anyone with an Internet connection. Increasingly people are coming into contact with their local wildlife and whether such interactions are positive or negative, they generally inspire a desire to learn more about the species. Moreover, there are still a great many misconceptions surrounding our wildlife (fox behaviour springs immediately to mind) and these are brought up time and time again during discussions in the media. Each article aims to provide a reasonably comprehensive overview of the species in question by drawing on information from the media, books, TV programmes and the scientific literature. I feel that this combination of sources, along with my own observations and those of my friends/colleagues/readers provides a unique online resource of British wildlife information. My hope is that the information provided here will go some way to changing people's perceptions of the creatures with which they share their parks and gardens.

Why create a website when there are books and TV programmes about your subjects?
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.

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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.

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