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Content Updated: 3rd February 2016

SEASONAL UPDATE: February 2016

Frosted flowers 

One month of 2016 gone already! Here in the UK the 2015/2016 winter has generally been mild, grey and wet, but we had a proper taste of the season towards the end of last month, with temperatures dropping below -10 Celsius (14 Fahrenheit) in parts of the Scottish Highlands. Even here in Southampton the thermometer on my garden shed read -6 C (21 F) one morning. It only lasted a few days, however, and by the last week of January the south coast was back up to 12-15 C (54-59 F). The seasonal average for January in Southampton is 8.4 C (47 F) based on the 1981-2010 dataset. Across the Atlantic the situation was quite different, and the east coast of the USA experienced record-breaking snowfalls during late January, with some parts receiving a metre (3 ft) of snow in 48 hours courtesy of storm ‘Jonas’. The long range weather models suggest that the jet stream is going to continue to oscillate across the north Atlantic, bringing periods of mild weather to the UK with some brief colder spells interspersed. It will be interesting to see how the wildlife adapts to this changing climate. Many people have expressed concerns over the impact warmer, wetter winters will have on insects and birds, but we tend to overlook its likely impact on our mammals. This month’s ‘Natural World Discoveries’ section looks at data suggesting that even larger mammals, such as deer, may struggle with an advancing spring.

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 this month and live near the coast, Surfers Against Sewage are looking for people to organise cleans of their local beaches – details here. Alternatively, if your plans only include a walk in your local woods or park, let’s take a look at what you might expect to see this month.

BadgersMammals: For most foxes the breeding season is now over. There may still be some late matings, but most of the vixens who will successfully conceive this year are pregnant by now. These recently pregnant foxes will be ‘house hunting’ this month and, for those who are concerned about foxes bringing up cubs in their gardens, now is the time to take action to block up holes under sheds and out-buildings. It is important to not just seal up a hole, because the animal may be trapped underground. My article on Deterring Foxes offers advice on how to dissuade a fox from setting up home under your shed. Badgers are also giving birth underground this month. The end of winter may seem a strange time to give birth, particularly given that, following a harsh winter, the female is likely to be malnourished having spent very little time out foraging. The logic is, however, sound, and the cubs will appear above ground in late spring or early summer, just when food should be at its most abundant and the weather at its ‘best’. Badgers are one of very few mammals that are superfetatious, which means they can conceive while pregnant, and this means February is also still the breeding season, resulting embryos being suspended in the womb until the winter. Badgers can carry embryos fertilised at different times of the year and yet give birth to the cubs at the same time to, hopefully, coincide with times of environmental plenty.

For wood mice the breeding season is ramping up and they are much more active at this time of year, particularly in and around garden sheds and garages during inclement weather. Males will closely follow females, sniffing her rear and the ground over which she has walked, in a bid to gauge when she is receptive. Similarly, brown hares are more obvious this month – their breeding season is underway and, thanks to lengthening days, some of the activity that normally happens under the cover of darkness spills out into the daylight. Over-amorous males are left in no doubt of their mistake by the females who stand on their hind legs and swipe out with their forefeet; males will often retaliate to protect themselves and the result is ‘mad March hares’ boxing. There are still some frenetic tree-top chases to be seen in your local park or woods, courtesy of the resident squirrels, and many hedgehogs will be coming out of hibernation this month. On the subject of hedgehogs, please keep an eye out for hedgehogs in your garden, particularly any seen abroad during daylight – these most likely have a heavy worm burden and need the services of a vet or hedgehog carer. Hedgehogs can also suffer quite badly if we have a prolonged cold spell during February or March and will benefit greatly by you leaving food out. More information on what to do if you find a small or sick hedgehog can be found in the Caring for Hedgehogs article on this site.

Bewick swanBirds: Arguably the most impressive avian display to be seen in the UK this month is the intricate courtship of the great crested grebe. These birds are relatively common in Britain nowadays, having largely recovered from decades of persecution by the Victorians who wanted their feathers to adorn clothing. Having recently moulted into their breeding plumage, grebes will be starting to pair up during February. Courtship starts with the two birds facing each other in the water, turning their heads in opposite directions and arching their heads back into their wings. The pair then line up side-by-side and turn their heads away from each other, each engaging in ritualistic preening. The male will then swim ahead of the female and stand erect in the water, while the female spreads her wings into what is often referred to as a ‘butterfly-like’ posture. The birds then separate and each will dive and resurfacing with a beak full of weed, they then charge at one another, standing up in the water to face each other at the last minute (splashing water everywhere as they kick to stay afloat) and turning their heads in opposite directions, shaking the weed. This display can happen several times before the pair will eventually mate and the display may break off at any stage, each bird going about its business. Interestingly, however, courtship never seems to pick up where it left off. If the pair separate after the ritualistic preening step, for example, they will start from scratch at the facing and head turning stage.

Our estuaries are also alive with bird activity at the moment, with plenty of swans (including some yellow-beaked bewicks - left), ducks and geese still to be found. All these ducks and waders attract predators and estuaries are a great place to look for birds of prey, with marsh harriers, short-eared owls and peregrines relatively common during this month. Tawny owls are very active at the moment and, as we enter their breeding season, there will be much calling and territorial scrapping to be heard after dark. In the event that we have a cold snap, redwings, fieldfares and bullfinches are likely to return to gardens looking for fruit and there seem plenty of these around in the New Forest at the moment. There are a few crossbills, hawfinches and siskins to be found this month, too. There have also been some very early records making the news in the last week or so. Swallows were, for example, recorded in the UK last month – normally they don’t show up until March. Skylarks have also been recorded singing during late January here in Hampshire. Keep an eye on the holly bushes and conifer trees in your local park or wood for the tiny restless activities of our two smallest bird species, the firecrest and goldcrest.

Reptiles and amphibians: Many people have been reporting frogs spawning in their ponds since we’ve entered the New Year and this is not as exceptional as you might imagine. It is not uncommon for frogs to spawn during December and for the first ‘batch’ of spawn to be killed off during frosts in January or February. That said, such winter spawning is generally confined to the south west of England, and the reports of spawn in northern England and Scotland during January are unusual. The exceptionally mild and wet winter this year suggests that, assuming the long range forecasts are correct and we don’t get any further very cold weather here in the south, much of the spawn from early breeding attempts will survive and 2016 may be a good year for frogs. If you have frogs in your pond, spawning or not, please take a moment to log the record with Amphibian and Reptile Conservation (ARC - http://www.recordpool.org.uk/index.php?option=com_records&view=records&layout=recordcard&Itemid=7). If the mild, wet weather is here to stay for the end of winter, all bets are off as to what other amphibian and reptilian species you may encounter on your walk, so keep your eyes peeled for toads, newts, snakes and lizards this month. Let me know what you find!

Brimstone butterflyInvertebrates: Normally for a February update I’d be saying how insects and spiders are now starting to resume activity as the weather warms up but, certainly here in the south, many species have remained active throughout the winter. Some people have been surprised to see bees and various butterflies in the last couple of weeks and while some species are active much earlier than we would expect, it is not necessarily unexpected for all species. Those butterflies that over-winter as adults – such as small tortoiseshell, peacock and brimstone (right) – are often seen among the hedgerows in February searching for the early flowers. Queen bumblebees have the ability to, metaphorically speaking, take their wings out of gear and fire their large flight muscles to generate heat that allows them to warm up sufficiently to resume activity. Wood ants set about rebuilding their winter-ravaged nest this month and a seething tangle of black ant bodies can be found covering the nest as they join together in a bid to absorb as much of the sun’s warmth as possible.

Plants and fungi: A walk in the New Forest at the end of last month turned up various bracket fungi, King Alfred’s butter, and some gelatinous ear fungus. The small bright red/orange scarlet elf cup is around this month, found on fallen branches, as are oyster mushrooms and wood blewit. There is also blossom around, thanks to the mild conditions, although the strong winds at the end of January may have stripped some of that away. Blossom this early in the year can be bad news, particularly if the weather turns cold and the pollinators disappear or strong winds strip it off. Blossom is energetically expensive to produce and trees only produce one batch per year; if it doesn’t get pollinated there will be no fruit later in the year. Snowdrops and daffodils have been in flower for a while now, some since Christmas, and always brighten up a winter walk. Alder, goat willow, dog’s mercury, primroses and crocuses can also be found during February, if the ground isn’t flooded.

Those of you who read last month’s update will be aware that I’m no longer doing a species bio each month. My hope is that it will allow me to devote some more time to actual content updates that have been sorely lacking over the last couple of years. So, as a change of pace, each month I will be hunting through the scientific literature to bring you a roundup of some of the interesting discoveries that have been made in the natural world in the last couple of years that may have slipped below the radar.  This month, I’m looking at wildlife-friendly farming, the impact of climate change on deer and, following many questions I saw posted to the BBC’s Winterwatch Facebook group last month, how animals cope with flooding.

February Feature – Natural Word Discoveries

West Sussex Farmland SetasideWildlife-friendly farming increases crop yield
In the UK it is estimated that there are about 300,000 active farms with an average size of some 60 hectares. Altogether, the UK Agriculture website suggests that farmers are responsible for managing about 75% of the UK’s surface area and that about 4% of farmed land is managed organically. Changing farming practices have long been considered a contributing factor in the decline of many rural species and a great deal of money and time has been invested in trying to find a way to reverse the decline without adversely impacting farmers’ livelihoods. A recent study by researchers at the National Environmental Research Council (NERC) has found a promising link between crop yield and wildlife-friendly habitats on farms.

The study, led by Richard Pywell at NERC’s Centre for Ecology and Hydrology in Oxfordshire, was conducted on the 900 ha Hillesden Estate in Buckinghamshire, central England, between September 2009 and September 2011. The farm was divided up into five blocks, some were cropped to the edges (i.e. had the crops planted right up the fence/hedge – the ‘BAU treatment’), while others had a field margin and corners left ‘un-cropped’ (i.e. crops weren’t sown right to the edge, leaving a boundary strip around the field that was sown with tall grasses and/or plants aimed at providing winter food for farmland birds). When the researchers looked at the productivity on the farm they found that the field margins on the BAU plots were between 10% and 40% less productive that the rest of the field, depending on the crop grown. It is suggested that field margins tend to have more compacted soil and crops planted there have more competition for light and nutrients from hedges and weeds which makes them less suitable growing areas.

What was particularly interesting is that the team recorded an increase in per unit area productivity in fields where wildlife-friendly margins were planted. A wildlife-friendly margin of only 3% of the field resulted in an increase in average crop production compared to the same area of the BAU fields, with an 8% margin producing a larger average increase. For example, fields planted with beans and given a 3% or 8% wildlife margin, produced 25% and 35% more beans than the equivalent area of the BAU fields.

So, if a farmer doesn’t plant right up to the field margins he or she can potentially increase their crop yield by planting a wildlife-friendly border to encourage pollinators. What, though, if they do plant right up? Even a 60% crop yield in these edge strips is better than no additional yield, right? Well, when the biologists looked at the overall productivity in the BAU and wildlife-friendly fields they found no significant increase in yields.  In other words, planting wildlife-friendly margins offsets the loss of crop area by increasing yields in the area of the field that remained. Planting of wildlife-friendly margins also increased the number of agricultural pest predators, such as ground beetles, which can help provide a ‘free’ pest-control service to farmers. Pywell and his co-workers concluded:

These results suggested that over a 5-year crop rotation, there would be no adverse impact on overall yield in terms of monetary value or nutritional energy.”

Reference: Pywell, R.F. et al. (2015). Wildlife-friendly farming increases crop yield: evidence for ecological intensification. Proc. Roy. Soc. 282B: 20151740.

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Roe deer kid in New ForestRoe dear
It looks like climate change may be having a detrimental impact on roe deer in parts of Europe. Writing in the journal Ecology Letters, a team led by Jean-Michel Gaillard at the University Claude Bernard Lyon report on how roe deer in the Champagne region of France have not adjusted their breeding season to the earlier onset of spring. Spring in the area arrives a week earlier than it did in 1985 and the researchers have found that there is now a growing mismatch between when the kids are born and when the most food is available, resulting in higher kid mortality as food runs out too quickly. Consequently, once flourishing populations have slowed their growth significantly in the last two decades. It remains unclear why the roe haven’t adjusted their breeding season to drop their kids earlier in the year, but there is the suggestion that it may be linked to the animals’ genetics, i.e. no suitable mutations have occurred, or that the delayed implantation (where, having conceived in the summer, roe deer does suspend the development of the embryo during the winter) may make the date of birthing more inflexible than in other species. One thing does seem evident, however: although the population is still increasing (albeit at a much slower pace now), roe numbers in Europe are likely to start to decline as climate change continues to advance the onset of spring over the coming decades.

Reference: Gaillard, J-M. et al. (2013). How does climate change influence demographic processes of widespread species? Lessons from the comparative analysis of contrasted populations of roe deer. Ecol. Lett. 16: 48-57.



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Gulls on flooded fieldFlood!
The winters of 2014/2015 and now 2015/2016 have been among the mildest and wettest on record. Some parts of northern England received nearly four-times their average monthly rainfall during December 2015, with Cumbria experiencing a month’s worth of rainfall in only 24 hours. The result has been widespread flooding in the UK. Indeed, the Environment Secretary, Elizabeth Trust, said last month that some 16,000 homes in England were flooded during the wettest December in a century.

Anyone following BBC’s Winterwatch on social media will have noticed that many people were concerned about how wildlife copes with flooding. The answer is a patchwork of details, because it affects different species differently, and, counterintuitively, species that we might expect to handle flooding well, such as otters and water voles, are actually more sensitive to rapidly-rising water levels than we might imagine.

When land floods, animals are displaced (i.e. forced to move somewhere else to escape the flood water). Many of the larger mammals, deer, foxes, badgers and so forth will up sticks and move away from the flood. For territorial species, such as foxes, this may result in them trespassing on a neighbour’s turf and this can cause conflict. Badgers and deer may also be at greater risk as rising water levels force them into closer proximity to people. Otters can see their holts flooded and youngsters can be swept away in abnormally high and fast-flowing rivers. Water voles aren’t strong swimmers, and are susceptible to being drowned; they also store food in underground burrows that can become flooded, removing a vital food source. Hibernating hedgehogs are very susceptible to drowning, as are mice, voles, shrews and moles, if their burrow systems are flooded. Mice and voles in particular are often displaced to field boundaries where conditions are dryer, but this ‘concentrating of small mammals’ attracts predators. The good news is that most mammal populations are quite resilient and any losses from flooding are generally short-term.

You might think that birds would manage more easily than mammals, but they can get wet and cold very easily and both heavy rain and flooding can hamper their ability to hunt. Rain waterlogs their feathers, hampering their ability to fly (including stripping owls of their ability to fly silently) and increasing their weight. Some estimates suggest that exposure to an hour of rain can increase a bird’s weight by 50%. Birds of prey in particular find prolonged periods of heavy rain very challenging and they are prone to starvation under such conditions. Even water birds such as kingfishers and dippers are susceptible because they cannot hunt in raging torrents and are displaced to surrounding fields and lakes.

Amphibians and reptiles fare differently. Frogs and toads can be swept away, although they generally handle the rising water fairly well, but reptiles in hibernation are susceptible to drowning. For amphibians a significant problem can be access to food being cut off by the water. Frogs and toads spend a significant part of their time, typically overnight, foraging on land for insects, worms and slugs. These prey species are displaced by floodwater. Worms, for example, will stay below ground – they can absorb oxygen across their skin and can generally wait out flood events but prolonged submersion affects their ability to feed and breed. So, short floods are generally not a significant problem for most wildlife, resulting in only temporary inconvenience or displacement. Prolonged rain and flooding does, however, have the potential to have a significant impact on the local population.

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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.

Great crested grebe at dawn

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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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