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Content Updated: 7th September 2014

SEASONAL UPDATE: September 2014

Autumn in Hampshire

Welcome to the start of autumn. Given the recent drop in temperatures and wet weather across the UK, you could be forgiven for thinking that autumn actually arrived mid-way through August. Last month, a change in the atmospheric circulation brought a northerly airflow to the UK, with air drawn down from the Arctic Circle. The result was a drop in temperatures by almost 10oC in some spots and the arrival of ex-hurricane Bertha from the United States brought some rain, causing the August Bank Holiday Monday to be a wash out for most of England, Wales and Ireland. Ex-hurricane Cristobal, by contrast, brought an area of high pressure to the UK, resulting in a warmer and more settled start to September. However the rest of the month pans out, weather-wise, the nights are certainly starting to draw in and this, coupled with a drop in temperature, triggers some changes in the Natural World. So, while some may lament the passing of summer, a cool autumn is actually a good thing for much of our wildlife, because temperature plays an important role in their preparations for winter. A drop in temperature is part of what triggers hedgehogs, bats and dormice to start laying down fat reserves to see them through hibernation. It is also a trigger for many birds to leave for warmer climes and for squirrels to ramp up their caching efforts. Temperature also has a pronounced effect on the deer rut, which gets under way this month, and mild wet autumns can delay the start of the rut considerably. Anyway, more about that in a minute.

If you fancy immersing yourself in nature this month, then there are a few public events going on during September that you might be interested in. If you want to do something proactive for your wildlife, why not head to your local beach and join in the Great British Beach Clean, organised by the Marine Conservation Society, which runs from 19th to 22nd September.  More details about the event and how to register can be found on the MCS website.  If you’re in the Birmingham area this month, you might also want to head to Sutton Park on 14th September, where the BBC and Wildlife Trusts are holding a ‘Summer of Wildlife’ event, with lots of wildlife-related activities for families. If you want to do something important without leaving the confines of your property, how about the Big Worm Dig, organised by Riverford Organic Farms? The premise is simple: spend 20 minutes digging an area of your garden and record the number of worms you find and where abouts you find them (i.e. in the compost heap, among fallen leaves, deep in the ground, etc.) and submit the results to Riverford via their website. The data collected will be analysed by researchers at the University of Central Lancashire, who will be trying to assess more about their natural history. Finally, the RSPB are also offering a series of events across the country over the next month covering a wealth of wildlife experiences from Red deer safaris to bird and bat-watching.

So, if you’re out-and-about this month, what wildlife can you expect to find?

Fallow deer clashingMammals: Autumn is a busy time in the mammal calendar, with falling temperatures and shortening days driving changes in physiology and behaviour. I mentioned earlier some of our deer are gearing up for their rut (breeding season) now and many of our woodlands, heaths and commons will soon be alive with the call of amorous cervids. Fallow (right) are the first deer species to start rutting, with belching (click to listen) and clashing apparent by mid-September; Red follow a little later, often towards the end of the month. Male deer compete with each other for the attentions of the females in spectacular fashion; they shout and lock antlers with each other in order to secure access to as many females as possible. Prior to actually locking antlers, though, they go through a series of highly stereotyped behaviours aimed at preventing actual physical contact. The deer belch/groan (Fallow) or roar (Red) at each other; the deeper the call, the larger the deer and this alone is often enough to make a challenger think twice. If the roaring contest doesn’t do the trick, they will square up to each other and walk side by side, turning their heads towards their challenger periodically – this is called parallel walking and is an opportunity for each deer to size up the other and decide whether it’s worth taking the challenge any further. If the two males are roughly evenly matched, they will turn and lock antlers, pushing and shoving; each with the goal of driving the other back. This is quite a spectacle to behold for us, but for the deer it is a serious situation with the potential for significant injury (even death). Lacerations are common to the neck, flank and rump of deer, inflicted by the pointed antlers of others.

Fallow and Red deer behave rather differently in their rutting behaviour. Red deer stags typically try to hold on to a group of females (called a harem) and will ‘see off’ any other males who comes close; as the rut progresses and the females start coming into oestrous, the number and vigour of the challenges increases. Fallow, by contrast, tend to opt more for a ‘dating site’ approach, whereby they set up a profile of themselves (by strutting, scent-marking and groaning) in a good spot (called a lek) and wait for the females to come to them. There are instances of Fallow adopting a Red-like harem mating system, but this is less common that the ‘lekking’ behaviour. A trip to your local deer park should provide a great opportunity to observe this behaviour without disturbing the deer (who are used to the presence of humans in such places). Richmond Park and Bushy Park in London are probably the best places in the south-east for watching the Red and Fallow rut, while Petworth Park in Sussex has a large Fallow population. Ashton Court in Bristol has Red and Fallow, while Woburn Deer Park in Bedfordshire and Bradgate Park in Lincolnshire also offer excellent opportunities to observe Red and Fallow rutting behaviour. If you do go out to watch the rut, keep an eye on the females and you should notice that it’s the Red hinds (females) that call the shots; if the matriarch of the harem decides to move, the stag can do little but watch them go! Also, watch out for Fallow bucks trying to break-up fights between other males; this ‘policing’ behaviour is thought to make the buck more attractive to the does (females).

Grey squirrel with acornWhile you’re in the woods, keep an eye out for small mammal caches (food stored by mice and voles) under rocks and logs, and listen out for the incessant squeaking of battling Common shrews. For more information about shrews and why you may find quite a few dead ones littering woodland and coastal paths this month, check out the ‘Pick of the Month’ below. Squirrels will also be busy this month as they start caching food to see them through the coming winter. Animals that don’t stash food for winter, e.g. hedgehogs, bats and dormice, are in the process of feeding ravenously, trying to build up sufficient fat reserves to see them through hibernation.   Despite the impending winter hiatus, it is not uncommon to find juvenile hedgehogs about in this month; these late-born hoglets (sometimes called ‘autumn orphans’) often struggle to survive the winter if they’re born too late in the year to lay down sufficient fat reserves. You can help by leaving out food and water for them and, if you happen to find a hedgehog out during the daytime or a hoglet in distress, please check out Natasha Harper’s Caring for Hedgehogs article on this site.

Finally, you might notice more racket at night as we head into autumn. Once cause of this noise is that fox family life is starting to get more tense and there is more in-fighting as this year’s cubs reach maturity; the result is an increase in fox movement and dispersal during the next few weeks. Not only do the cubs often fight with their parents (who, in many instances, want them to leave), if they do disperse they often end up trespassing on another fox’s territory and this too leads to conflict. In urban environments dispersal, if it happens, is often later in the year; typically during December. Tawny owls are a second cause. The young have now fledged and the parents are keen to get them out of their territory, so there is much calling going on. As we progress through autumn the territoriality increases as the pair-bond between the male and female is re-established.

Birds: Most species have finished moulting and are now in their winter plumage as they move through the countryside in large flocks. A few to keep a look out for this month are birds of prey including ospreys passing through and Barn owls, Barn swallows on telegraph lines waiting to migrate to their South African wintering grounds, and the iridescent splash of blue signifying a jay, which are busy caching nuts and seeds. A trip to a local estuary or ‘sticky-out bit’ (i.e. headland, mull or peninsula) is a must for any birder this month as the first of our winter visitors and migrants start to arrive. Ring ouzels, Red-breasted flycatchers and the striking Union Jack waistcoat of the bluethroat are all highlights this month. Some of our resident bird populations are also bolstered by migrants from Europe during September, making this a good month to get out in the countryside and look for large flocks of finches working the stubble. Harriers, firecrests, wagtails and sandpipers are also around this month.

Common lizardReptiles and amphibians: As we move into autumn, reptiles and amphibians can become more difficult to spot.   That said, there are still many Smooth snake and slow-worm births during September, along with juvenile lizards, adders and Grass snakes to be found. First thing on a frosty morning in early autumn can offer good reptile-spotting opportunities. Newts, which hibernate close to breeding ponds, are also on the move, so head out on a dark wet night to look for them. Most ponds are now home to far fewer frogs and toads than six months ago, with the adults and recently metamorphosed froglets/toadlets now spending much of their time on land in leaf litter, long grass and under logs.

Invertebrates: September heralds the beginning of a period of dread for arachnophobes; the time of year when spider start appearing in our homes.   Most of these lone spiders (generally of the Tegenaria, or ‘house spider’, genus) are males in search of breeding females and have no interest in the human occupants. Unfortunately for the arachnophobic homeowner, some of these spiders can reach truly impressive proportions and pint glasses may be needed to catch and evict them! Cellar spiders (Pholcus phalangoides, sometimes called Daddy-long-legs) are also commonly found in houses (often toilets) during the autumn; these skinny little arachnids are great to have around because they eat other spiders, even big house spiders! Cellar spiders are also among the most timid of the arachnids you’re likely to find in your house and if you approach the web they will vibrate rapidly, hoping that the blur makes them invisible. Garden spiders (Araneus diadematus) are also particularly noticeable this year; the juveniles have now dispersed and set up their own webs, which the low angle of the sun illuminates, making them easier to see.   Craneflies are also about in force during this month and there are still some dragon- and damsel-flies around, although most will have laid their eggs by now.   There also seem to be a few butterflies still about, making the most of the early autumn sun – species include Specked wood, Peacock, Red admiral, and the Brown hairstreak.   There are also plenty of fiddle-shaped shield bugs known as Dock bugs and woodland dung beetles called Dor beetles.

Plants and fungi: September is very much a ‘fruiting month’ as the seeds of Horse chestnut, ash, beech, Sweet chestnut and sycamore are starting to ripen, as is some of the impressive range of wild fruit the UK has to offer, including sloes, blackberries, and elderberries.   Fungi is on the increase from September and a few to watch out for this month are woodland Stinkhorn (Phallus impudicus), the Giant puffball (Calvatia gigantea) in pastureland, Red-cracking bolete (Boletus chrysenteron) in broadleaved woodland, Yellow stagshorn (Calocera viscose) on rotten logs in conifer forests, Pink waxcaps (Hygrocybe calyptriformis) on lawns and the wonderfully-named Hedgehog mushroom (Hydnum repandum), sporting a pale cream-coloured cap with soft bristles underneath.

Pick of the Month for September – Common shrews (Sorex araneus)

Common shrewThis month’s feature takes a brief look at the natural history of an animal that people very seldom see, despite being a widely distributed and abundant throughout mainland Britain. Indeed, it is only really during the late summer and early autumn that people start noticing this diminutive mammal; sadly, this tends to be as corpses by the side of paths.

Keeping it in the family
At first glance, you could be forgiven for thinking that shrews are closely related to other small, furry, scurrying mammals, such as mice and voles, and are therefore rodents (i.e. part of the Rodentia order). Early naturalists, however, spotted that (among other anatomical discrepancies) shrews lack the continuously-growing incisor teeth that are characteristic of rodents. It was nonetheless apparent that these small mammals fed largely on insects, making them insectivorous (insect-eaters). So, based on their dietary preference, shrews were placed within a large taxonomic group called the Insectivora. Traditionally, the Insectivora had been something of a dumping ground for smallish insect-eating mammals that were rather unspecialised in their appearance; as well as the shrews, it included the hedgehogs, moles, tenrecs (sometimes referred to as ‘fake hedgehogs’), and colugos (gliding mammals found in Southeast Asia, also called flying lemurs). All-in-all, there were around 350 species classified into 60 genera. Use of the Insectivora as a taxonomic order has, however, been largely abandoned in recent years; more rigorous study, combined with the advent of molecular genetics has yielded quite different phylogenetic arrangements to those proposed by early naturalists. The first attempt to split up these mammals into groups that more closely reflected their relationships was made in 1864 and even now, 150 years later, we are still not entirely sure how all the members of this group fit together.

Currently, scientists place the shrews in a large taxonomic group -- called a supraordinal group -- called the Laurasiatheria (pronounced: Lor-asia-theer-a), which contains a huge variety of placental mammals from bats and hedgehogs, to giraffes and lions. Indeed, the Laurasiatheria includes six different orders: the one we’re interested in is the Eulipotyphla (pronounced: You-lip-o-tie-fla), which contains the hedgehogs, moles and our shrews. So, contrary to how it might appear at first glance, shrews are not closely related to mice or voles, instead sharing an ancestor with hedgehogs and, more distantly, moles. The shrews are grouped together in their own family, the Soricidae, and worldwide there are some 386 species grouped into 26 genera. Across Europe there are 15 species of shrew, three of which are found here in mainland Britain (although not Ireland and with patchy distributions in Scotland): the Common shrew (Sorex araneus), the feature of this article; the Pygmy shrew (Sorex minutes); and the Water shrew (Neomys fodiens).  A fourth species, Millet’s shrew (Sorex coronatus), is found on the island of Jersey, but nowhere else in Britain and is almost indistinguishable from the Common shrew. The scientific (Latin) name for the Common shrew translates roughly to the ‘spider shrew’--  Sorex is Latin for ‘shrew’, and araneus is Greek for ‘spider’ -- because both shrews and spiders were considered venomous when this species was first described, back in the mid 18th Century.

What? Where? When?
Common shrewCommon shrews are small mammals, growing to a body length of 5-9cm (2 – 3.5 in.) and with a 3-6cm (1 – 2.5 in.) long tail. Adult shrews weigh between 6g and 12g (0.2 – 0.4 oz.) -- about the weight of a pound coin -- and are covered in short, dense chestnut brown or brown-grey fur; during autumn, they moult into a thicker, longer, denser winter coat. In young shrews, the tail is covered with short, bristly fur, but this is lost during adulthood (8 months or older). Shrews exhibit very short stubby ears, small round eyes and a relatively long, thin snout that is covered in highly sensitive vibrissae (whisker). Common shrews are part of a group known as red-toothed shrews, owing to the presence of reddish-brown tips to their teeth; this is caused by the deposition of an iron-based pigment in the tip of the enamel (where the most wear is generated) of all the teeth. The iron increases the acidic resistance of the enamel and thus serves to slow down the rate of wear; this creates a sharp cutting edge where the pigmented enamel rubs against unpigmented enamel. This hardening of teeth is critically important to the shrew because, as we shall see, they live life on something of an energetic knife edge, being in constant search of food. Shrews shed their milk teeth while still in the uterus and so are born with a full set of permanent teeth. If those teeth start wearing down and breaking then the average mastication particle size increases (i.e. they end up having to swallow bigger lumps of food) and this leads to less efficient digestion, because smaller particles are more quickly broken down than large ones. The result is that shrews with worn teeth are less able to extract energy from their food and more prone to starvation than those with a full set of sharp teeth.

Shrews are widespread throughout England and Wales, with a more patchy distribution in Scotland where they are more abundant in coastal regions. Shrews are found in a variety of habitats, including thick grassland, deciduous woodland, coastal dune systems, wetlands, hedgerows, bushy scrub, bracken, heathland and even among mountain scree; they are particularly abundant in grassy peripheral habitats such as road verges. Most shrews range over surprisingly large areas, with tagged shrews having been observed to move over between 100 sq-metres and one sq-km (between 120 and 1,200 sq-yards), although most home ranges seem to fall between 37 and 67 sq-m (44-80 sq-yds). The total British population is estimated to be about 41.7 million individuals, with 26 million of those in England, 11.5 million in Scotland, and 4.2 million in Wales.

A shrew’s home range is largely exclusive and they will generally not tolerate the presence of another adult in their vicinity. Direct observations in captivity, however, suggest that shrews don’t protect a specific territory, but instead defend a small area around their current location. The shrew’s energy demands mean that it cannot afford to waste time patrolling borders looking for potential interlopers; looking for food is the number one concern. If a shrew encounters another adult, however, a fight will erupt, with much squeaking, biting and scratching, often with each rearing up on their hind legs in an attempt to drive the other away. Such fights are intense and violent and may result in the death of one, or in some instances both, combatants.

A fascinating study published in the Biology Bulletin last year by biologists from the Russian Academy of Science reported that any given population of Common shrews includes some animals that distance themselves from their neighbours, and others that live on ranges that overlap widely with their neighbours; this ratio may change in different years. The researchers found that the shrews employed scent marks around their ‘core areas’ (i.e. the bits of the plots they visited most frequently), which served to passively avoid confrontation and reduce overcrowding. The study also identified two ‘types’ of animal: those that were sensitive to the scent-marks left by others and those that largely ignored them (reactive and indifferent animals, respectively). Interestingly, whether a shrew was indifferent or reactive affected how it used an area, with reactive individuals frequently nipping outside the boundaries of their foraging area, while indifferent stayed within their familiar borders. This implies that some shrews may study the social milieu by making repeated, long-distance trips into the territories of other shrews. Indeed, other studies have demonstrated that scent plays an important role in shrew society and shrews have specific glands that secrete strongly smelling discharge, which makes them distasteful to many predators (explaining why they are often abandoned after capture). The flank (side) glands are the most highly-developed, but the secretion is also discharged by glands on the neck, under the tail, around the lips, behind the ears, and on the soles of paws. Studies in captivity have reported that when shrews scratch their sides, the secretion from the side gland inevitably stains the paws and other shrews can find and even trace the track taken by a single passing shrew.

ShrewAs a species that is notoriously difficult to observe in the wild, most of what we know about the activity patterns and territoriality of the Common shrew has been gained from observations in captivity. One such study, conducted by Peter Crowcroft and published in the Proceedings of the Zoological Society of London during 1953, looked at the activity of Common, Pygmy and Water shrews in a purpose-built enclosure. Crowcroft found that Common and Pygmy shrews were significantly more active than Water shrews; he calculated what’s called the coefficient of activity by dividing the number of hours of activity by the number of hours of rest (so the bigger the number, the more active the animal) and arrived at values of 0.70, 1.36 and 1.46 for Water, Pygmy and Common shrews, respectively. So, Common shrews were the most active of them all, being active for twice as long as the Water shrews. Crowcroft observed that Common shrews tended to be active for periods of three-or-four hours continuously, although this varied by individual, and that they never slept continuously for more than two hours; typically, bouts of sleep only lasted between 12 and 36 minutes, with several bouts lasting only a few minutes. Crowcroft’s Common shrews showed activity throughout the 24 hour cycle, although there were peaks in activity during early morning, then again at mid-morning, and again at about 10pm; there was a relative lull in activity during the afternoon (from around noon until dark). One very interesting observation was that while moving about a shrew would frequently stop, close their eyes and draw their feet underneath them and rock from side-to-side, apparently dozing, for a few minutes. This ‘fitful dozing’, as Crowcroft referred to it, was different from the true sleep, which always occurred in the nest, with the head tucked under the body. So, this suggests that even during a shrew’s ‘active period’ it may not be active all the time. Other studies have noted shrews to be active during as many as 10 ‘bouts’ per day, with particular peaks at dusk, during the night, and at dawn and that much of this activity happens below ground.

Live fast, die young
Shrews are almost exclusively invertivorous (i.e. they feed on invertebrates), with most prey falling in the size range of 6-10mm.  A study on the diet of three species of shrew found that Common shrews in southern Slovenia fed on 15 taxa (groups) of animals, while those in the north fed on half as many, suggesting that the breadth of the diet varies with habitat. The study found that the most frequent prey types in all the three species in both locations were Araneae (spiders, particularly Lace-webs of the genus Amaurobius), Lumbricidae (earthworms), and Coleoptera (beetles). Diplopoda (millipedes), which are abundant in both locations, were completely avoided by all three species. Similar studies elsewhere have found that Common shrews will occasionally take molluscan prey (i.e. slugs and snails), but they’re generally not favoured, while certain species of woodlice are apparently relished. Common shrews take more subterranean prey (particularly earthworms) than our other shrew species, and typically attack prey head-first to immobilise it.

Shrews have an exceptionally high metabolism, meaning that they are almost constantly on the search for food. During normal operations, shrews must eat 80-90% of their body weight per day, although this varies with ambient temperature (colder conditions resulting in higher metabolisms); this rises to 150% for lactating females.  One study estimated that a typical shrew needs to eat 4g (about 1/7th oz) of beetle per day, which equates to about 1,800 small (5mm long) staphylinid beetles in 24 hours. By contrast, shrews are more efficient at digesting insect pupae and cocoons, requiring only about 2g per day. This high metabolic rate is coupled with very low energy reserves (shrews carry very little fat), meaning that they are highly prone to starvation when deprived of food for even a few hours. Indeed, a study published in 1994 reported that the maximum time a shrew could survive without food was eight hours; typically, these mammals feed at least every 1.5-3 hours. Given that invertebrate prey is often difficult to find and/or get at during the winter months, it may be surprising to realise that shrews do not follow the example of other insectivores (i.e. hedgehogs) and hibernate the cold months away. Instead, shrews have evolved an amazing mechanism for reducing their energy demands during the winter: they shrink!

Common shrews matingAcross Europe during winter, Common shrews have brain and body masses between 9% and 28% lower than they have during the summer months – this shrinking is known as Dehnel’s phenomenon. The shrews sequester minerals from their spinal column, causing a flattening of the vertebral discs and an overall shortening of the spine, and there is a resorption of the parietal and occipitointerparietal bones at the edge of sutures in skull, resulting in a shrinking of the skull. These skeletal changes are also often associated with a decrease in the size of many of the internal organs, as well as less fat and water being retained. A study by Jan Taylor at University of Białystok and colleagues found that this reduction in body size resulted in an overall decrease in basal metabolic rate of 18%. Normally, a reduction in size for a mammal would result in a higher metabolism because they lose more heat than a larger animal, but this is more than offset by the shrew’s dense winter coat. Taylor and her co-workers found that heat loss dropped by about one-fifth (19%) thanks to improved insulation from their winter fur. So, this allows the shrew to reduce its body size and thus its nutritional requirement to help it through leaner times.

Dead shrews everywhere: a shrewicide pact?
Shrews are not long-lived mammals; their size makes them a target for many predators, while their metabolism makes them prone to starvation. Typically, a Common shrew could expect to live for 15-18 months, with half of shrews dying before they reach two months old. Indeed, only about 20-30% of shrews survive to breed in their first spring. James Carey and Debra Judge, in their 2000 monograph Longevity Records, give the record age for a wild Common shrew as two years old, while Richard Weigl – in his 2005 Longevity of Mammals in Captivity – gives three years and two months as the oldest captive Common shrew, held at Helsinki Zoo in the mid-1980s. So, does this short life span explain why we suddenly start finding dead shrews littering the countryside during late summer and early autumn? Well, nobody is entirely sure, but scientists believe this is part of the story.

The shrew breeding season runs from around mid-April until mid-August, so at this time of year we’ve reached the end of the frenetic mating season and this has taken a huge toll on an animal that is already living only just above its energetic ‘means’. Consequently, many shrews simply die from exhaustion, while others starve to death if they have devoted too much time searching for females or failed to secure a home range. Indeed, as early as 1935 it was demonstrated that almost all adult Common shrews die off during the late summer and early autumn after breeding, and that the overwintering populations is, therefore, almost entirely made up of young born that year. Of course, not all shrews die of ‘natural causes’ and many are predated. Despite having a potent scent gland that releases a secretion many predators (particularly domestic cats) find distasteful, this doesn’t do them much good because most of their mammalian predators hunt by sound rather than sight and so don’t know what they’ve caught until they’ve pounced; only then do they find out it’s not a mouse or vole and often discard it. Foxes commonly take shrews, often caching them for later use (they prefer mice and voles), while badgers, stoats and weasels take them occasionally. A significant source of predation comes in the form of birds of prey; with Barn owls, Tawny owls and kestrels frequently taking and consuming shrews. Some reptiles also take shrews; Chris Reading and Gabriela Jofre's study on Smooth snakes in Dorset between 2004 and 2012 found 32% of snake faecal samples contained shrew remains.

Dead Common shrew in New ForestSo, some of the dead shrews you find will just have died of exhaustion or starvation, while others will have been discarded or accidentally dropped by predators.  (It is worth pointing out at this point that it is not always easy to see wounds on shrews and a close inspection in the hand is often required.) There are, however, some more interesting suggestions for these sudden deaths. In his 1950 book, Wild Animals in Britain, Oliver Pike finds the idea that shrews starve to death or die of old age an unlikely explanation for the ubiquitous bodies to be found at this time of year; Pike’s reasoning is that, in his experience, sick animals go off and find a secluded spot to die, rather than dying out in the open as the shrews appear to have. Pike, instead, mentions the suggestion made by nature photographer Douglas English who observed how three shrews died in their beds, one during a thunderstorm and two when “the atmosphere was in an unsettled thundery state”. Pike writes:

I believe that a sudden clap of thunder can kill certain creatures. I have seen a coal tit fall dead from a tree directly after a gun was fired underneath, but pointing in the opposite direction to the bird. Many of these small animals are far more sensitive to sounds than we humans, so it is quite possible that a sudden loud noise close at hand would have a fatal effect.

As intriguing as Pike’s theory is, it seems unlikely that stochastic events such as thunderstorms (although more common in late summer and autumn) could account for the consistent appearance of dead shrews during these few weeks. I’m of the opinion that the evidence points firmly to the exhaustion/starvation hypothesis, but perhaps thunder takes its toll too!

Whatever you’re up to this month, take care and I hope to see you back here in October. 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: 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.

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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, however, are 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 (the BBC, for example), 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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