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Content Updated: 3rd April 2016

SEASONAL UPDATE: April 2016

Sunrise over the city

Spring has sprung! That is to say, we have now passed the spring equinox and the days will progressively grow longer than the nights. Here in the UK the clocks ‘sprang’ forward over the Easter weekend, so the nights are lighter. We had a slight wobble in the weather over the Easter bank holiday with storm Katie, the eleventh named storm to hit the UK since last autumn, bringing 106 mph (170 kmph) gusts to the south coast. Things seem to have settled down a bit and there are certainly signs of spring around now. Even after a generally mild and wet winter, there is a new life in the countryside, with adders out and about, birds singing, and more settled weather, at least here in the south. The Met Office models are currently indicating that an area of high pressure seems likely to develop across Europe, bringing drier and even more settled weather as we head through April. Any rain looks more likely to hit the south and west of England. Time will tell.

As usual, the RSPB and Wildlife Trusts are running a series of events throughout April aimed at helping people get out and about and experience spring. Elsewhere, the Peoples’ Trust for Endangered Species are now running their Great Stag Hunt, during which they’re looking for records of stag beetles from around the country (more details and a recording form can be found here).  As mentioned in last month’s update the PTES are also running their Living with Mammals survey; for this your assistance is needed to help monitor mammals living in and around urban areas (details here).  If you’re after some more proactive conservation work this month, perhaps think about joining one of the beach cleans that are being organised by the Marine Conservation Society this month.  Better still, if your local beach isn’t included, why not organise your own event? For those whose plans for this month extend no further than a walk on your local patch, let’s take a look at what’s happening this year.

Brown hares matingMammals: April is the month of fox cubs, which now start appearing above ground. The peak of fox births is mid-March, and the cubs emerge at about four weeks old but stay close to the earth. The parents are kept busy, sometimes helped out by extended family like older brothers/sisters/aunts that haven’t dispersed. Related adult females have been observed hunting for the cubs, guarding them while their parents were away, and even suckling them. The average fox litter contains four or five cubs; the very large litters of ten or more cubs that are sometimes reported are usually the combined brood of two related females sharing the territory. Parent foxes are run ragged for the next few weeks as they work flat out trying to find enough food for their demanding offspring, and this is a time to take particular care when securing your livestock. Foxes are also more likely to be out during the day, even in rural locations, at this time of year. I have seen some suggestion that foxes are more antisocial towards cats at this time of year because moggies are seen as a threat to their cubs – I’ve encountered no data to support such a claim, but it doesn’t seem unreasonable. Badger cubs are also active during this month, but most won’t be observed above ground until the end of the month at the earliest. Brown hares are very active at the moment, with plenty of chasing, boxing and mating (right) going on. Hares will breed through until the summer and some will already be suckling their first litter of leverets by now.

Most hedgehogs are out of hibernation by now, and males will be travelling widely looking for potential mates. If you can, please leave out some fresh water in your garden, as newly-emerged hogs are very thirsty. You can also put out some food if you wish. I personally put out seeds, crushed peanuts and insect-mix suet pellets, but please avoid whole peanuts, which can get stuck on their teeth, and bread and milk. You may also have noticed an increase in the number of mole hills of late – as the soil starts to warm up, worms move towards the surface, particularly during mild, wet conditions that are idea for breeding, and the moles follow them. This increase in worm activity coincides with the start of the mole breeding season. April is also a good month to go small mammal spotting, with wood mice and bank voles busy among the leaf litter and log piles. Bank voles will start breeding towards the end of the month, the season running until about September, while many wood mice have already produced their first litter of pups by now, their breeding season having started back in February.

Things are fairly quiet in the deer world at the moment. Roe deer will have finished re-growing their antlers by now and most will shed their velvet this month. At the same time, red, sika and fallow deer will cast their antlers in the next couple of weeks, if they haven’t already. Many of the red stags I saw in the New Forest on 2nd April had started re-growing theirs. Keep an eye out for antlers in your local woods while out and about this month, but please be mindful of collecting them. Antlers represent an important source of minerals for deer and other animals. It is not uncommon to find cast antlers that have been chewed/gnawed and I have seen some deer chewing at antlers still attached to another deer’s head. Collecting antlers from deer parks is not normally an issue, because the deer are generally provided with supplementary food, but in many local woods and parks, leaving the antler where it is can make all the difference to the wildlife. While the new antlers are growing, they are covered by a layer of hairy skin called velvet that supplies blood and minerals. The antlers are very sensitive during this growth phase and the stags will take great care not to damage them; disputes are settled by rising up and striking out with the front legs.

Birds: April is a month of change in the bird world. Most of our winter visitors have left now and our spring and summer residents - swallows, martins, cuckoos, and the like - are arriving. We can expect such species as woodlark, hobbies and nightjars to arrive this month. I heard my first chiff-chaff of the year over the Easter weekend, and skylarks have been singing for a couple of weeks now. There are also plenty of buzzards displaying and calling at the moment as we move into their nesting season. Similarly, two of our most colourful water birds, kingfishers and great crested grebes, will be on eggs this month. Many of the more humble waterfowl - ducks, geese, swans, moorhens, etc. - that are present on ponds and lakes across the UK also make interesting subjects. You may notice a distinct lack of female mallards on your local ponds this month. There are still bachelor groups of drakes to be found, but only a few of females. Once the mallards have laid eggs, the drake leaves the female and joins up with other males, forming bachelor groups that stay together as the birds moult into their summer plumage.

Other species to keep an eye out for this month are redstarts, hawfinch, song thrushes, starlings, lapwings, herons, goldcrests and firecrests darting around in conifer trees, Dartford warblers on southern heathland, and little egrets. If you find yourself in the Welsh hills or the mountains of northern England and you see a bird that looks similar to a Blackbird but with a white bib, you’re actually looking at the mountain blackbird, or ring ouzel. This lovely little bird over-winters in Spain and North Africa, returning to the UK in the spring to breed.

Common LizardReptiles and amphibians: As the weather warms up, so the amphibian and reptilian activity increases. We saw our first adder of the year basking in the sunshine on Good Friday, and I’ve seen lots on Facebook to suggest adders, grass snakes and common lizards (left) are out and about across the country. Areas of heathland or bracken are good spots to look for reptiles – just sit quietly and wait. Also, if you startle a snake or lizard and it dives for cover, move back and sit and wait for a while. Sheltered basking spots can be limited at this time of year and they will often come back out to sunbathe once the disturbance has passed. Newly-emerged male adders will hang around the hibernaculum for a couple of weeks until they’ve shed their skin, then they’ll move off to hunt and look for mates. I find early morning and late afternoon the best times to search out reptiles. Walk quietly and carefully with the sun on your back looking along the edges of clumps or gorse, heather and bracken and on the tops of banks.

Amphibians are busy breeding now. Most frogs will have finished spawning, although I know several people reported new spawn laid over Easter. The spawn in our pond hatched a couple of weeks ago now and the tadpoles are busy feeding on the algae around the edges. How rapidly these tadpoles grow and develop will depend on the weather – warmer water results in more rapid growth if the food is there. Typically the tadpoles will start growing back legs at about 16 weeks, and shortly before this their protein requirements skyrocket so they include much more meat in their diet. Indeed, if you suspend a small cube of uncooked steak on a piece of cotton in the pond during early summer you can generate the tadpole equivalent of a shark feeding frenzy. The tadpoles will grow front legs and resorb their tails before leaving the pond – the result is a load of miniature frogs hopping around the garden in late summer or early autumn. Toads are spawning now and their tadpoles will follow a similar development, while newts usually start laying eggs later in the year, although there may be some courtship behaviour towards the end of this month.

Invertebrates: Spider activity has resumed in and around our conservatory and shed, and in the last couple of weeks there have been plenty of wolf spiders in the garden. There are a few bees out and about now, and we saw quite a few brimstone butterflies over the Easter weekend here in Hampshire. Peacock, tortoiseshell and red admiral butterflies are also around this month, as are a few orange-tip and speckled wood. The ungainly oil beetle, with their big lustrous black bodies, can be found on wild-flower-rich heaths, grasslands, moorlands and coasts during April – if you find one, please report it. Other species of interest this month include the black, dangly-legged St Mark’s fly, which forms large swarms in April, and the bee fly, a fascinating fly that has evolved to look like a bee, allowing it to get close enough to the nests of solitary bees and wasps to flick eggs into the entrance. Once hatched, its grubs head into the nest to feed on the bee/wasp larvae.

Plants and fungi: Many tree species should be in blossom now, but the unusually mild and stormy winter meant that many trees produced blossom earlier than normal which was then stripped off by the strong winds. Much of the later blossom here in the south was removed by storm Katie last month. This creates a significant problem for the tree. Blossom is energetically-expensive for the tree to produce and, if it is lost before the tree is pollinated, cannot be replaced. The result is that there is likely to be less fruit come summer and autumn.

In the woodlands, bluebells, wood anemone and extensive carpets of ramsons, aka wild garlic, with their sometimes over-powering scent, can be found. Meadow flowers around this month include cuckoo flower, cowslip, with its fabulous honey scent, and adder’s tongue, while there are pasque flowers and daffodils in many roadside verges. Fungi-wise, St. George’s mushrooms, shaggy inkcap and deer shield can be found this month, as can the inedible common ink cap and yellow fieldcap.

Pick of the Month – Natural World Discoveries

Humans helping grey squirrels spread
Grey squirrelMost of us are aware that humans introduced grey squirrels to the UK from America in the 1800s and, since then, they've spread themselves throughout much of the UK. Well, maybe not quite. Greys are certainly an invasive species and able to disperse of their own accord, but perhaps not quite as quickly as we previously thought.

There are rumours of releases, usually from private collections, dating back as far as 1828 (in Denbighshire, North Wales). The first verifiable record, however, is from 1876, when a Mr. Brocklehurst released a pair of greys into Henbury Park, near Macclesfield in Cheshire, after their appeal as pets waned. Since then they have been recorded in most UK counties and have recently been found in previously grey-free areas of Scotland, even breaching the Highland Red Squirrel Protection Line late last year. As the greys have spread, the red squirrel has declined, so a lot of research has been devoted to halting the spread and conserving our indigenous reds. Recent research by Lisa Signorile and her colleagues at Imperial College London suggests, however, that we're still helping their spread by transporting them around the country.

In a paper published earlier this year, Signorile and her colleagues looked at the genetic profiles (genotypes) of grey squirrels taken from the wild in the UK and samples held in museum collections. The researchers built a genotype database of 1,421 individuals from 59 locations across Europe and one in the USA - 13 from Scotland, 28 from England and Wales, nine from Ireland, nine from Italy, and one from the Eastern USA. They found that the genome of a squirrel caught in town of Breakish in October 2010, the nearest grey population to which is at Fort William on the Scottish mainland some 130km away, matched a population sampled 40 km south-east of Glasgow with a 98.5% probability. In other words, this squirrel appears to have come from a population some 220km (140 miles) away. Similarly, the genome of a squirrel caught in Northumberland's Happy Valley in 2010, an area where this species had not previously been recorded, was matched to the population in West Lothian, some 100km (62 miles) away, with 96% probability. Perhaps most striking was the finding that two-thirds of the 56 grey squirrels they studied from Aberdeen were assigned to the New Forest genome with a 93.7% probability. So, Aberdeen's greys were genetically more closely related to populations 700km (430 miles) away in Hampshire than to those in northern England.

So, does this mean we have an army of clandestine squirrel smugglers in the UK? Well, not necessarily, because accidental translocations are thought to happen all the time. The grey found on the otherwise squirrel-free island of Skye, for example, originated from Glasgow according to Signorile’s analysis and, rumour has it, travelled to the island under the bonnet of a car. These data highlight the fact that it is virtually impossible to stop accidental translocations and, as such, movements like this are something we need to consider when looking at how we tackle the problems of grey squirrels in the Britain.

Reference: Signorile, A.L. et al. (2016). Using DNA profiling to investigate human-mediated translocations of an invasive species. Biol. Cons. 195: 97-105.

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Brown bearMicrobes help bears put on weight for hibernation
Hibernation is a strategy adopted by a number of animals during which they reduce their metabolism - slow their heat beat, drop their body temperature, redistribute blood to the core organs, etc. - in order to reduce their energy consumption during the coldest parts of winter when food is scarce or hard to reach. A classic and well-studied hibernating species is the brown bear (Ursus arctos), which eats voraciously during the summer months, piling on the pounds to double their body weight, before fasting through up to six months of cold weather in hibernation. Hibernators, and particularly brown bears, are interesting because their weight fluctuates considerably over the course of the year; despite this they seem to remain metabolically healthy. In humans we know that obesity is closely linked with diabetes, and researchers are keen to understand how bears put on so much weight without seeming to suffer as a result – so-called 'healthy obesity'.

In a paper to the journal Cell Reports earlier this year, a multidisciplinary team led by Felix Sommer at the University of Gothenburg in Sweden report the findings of their study on brown bear gut microbiota (bacteria and fungi). The scientists found that the composition of these microbiotic communities varied seasonally, with several key groups showing reduced diversity and abundance during hibernation. When they transferred ‘summer’ and ‘hibernation’ microbiotic samples into mice, the 'summer' mice gained weight, but processed blood sugar normally. This suggests that the microbiota in the bear’s stomach help stop it developing diabetes when it puts on so much weight in the autumn, and intimates that we may be able to target the microbiota as a potential treatment of obesity.

Reference: Sommer, F. et al. (2016). The gut microbiota modulates energy metabolism in the hibernating brown bear Ursus arctos. Cell Reports. 14:1-7.

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Muntjac deer colonised the UK from only a handful of animals
Reeves' muntjacAny plant or animal introduced into an ecosystem in which they aren’t native and to which they are likely to cause damage is known as an invasive species. Early colonisers were renowned for bring non-native species with them; sometimes accidentally when species have stowed away in cargo or vehicles or escaped from captivity, and other times deliberately to provide meat, sport, to make the place feel more homely, or just because they liked them. Many introductions have little impact, the individuals dying out relatively quickly. Some introductions, however, can lead to significant problems.

One such invasive species in the UK is the Reeves’ muntjac deer (Muntiacus reevesi). This small deer, about the size of a springer spaniel, is a native of China and Taiwan, but has relatively recently found its way into the British countryside. Exactly how and when muntjac went on the lam in Britain is lost in the annals of history, but the first record of this species entering the country was a pair sent from China to the Zoological Society of London in 1838. Subsequently, the 11th Duke of Bedford, who had something of a penchant for travelling the world and bringing back interesting deer to his deer park at Woburn Abbey, imported 28 muntjac into his park between 1894 and 1906. The Woburn archives show that 11 animals were released from the deer park in 1901. Traditionally, it had been assumed that the spread of muntjac was helped by a number of subsequent escapes and releases from captivity and, in 2008, the UK population was conservatively estimated at about 52,000. New data from biologists in Belfast, however, suggest that the current muntjac population originated from only a handful of founding females.

The researchers, led by Jim Provan at Queen’s University, analysed 176 tissue samples from muntjac collected from around the British Isles, and found all individuals grouped together in the same genetic cluster and showed no geographical structuring. In other words, all the muntjac they studied could be traced back to a single introduction of deer into the British countryside. They did find evidence that more than one escape/release had taken place, but these animals appear merely to have mixed with already established populations. The biologists note:

Our data are consistent with four or five females leading to a major geographic invasive species problem.”

This study serves to remind us that a single release of a handful of animals that may appear insignificant is all it takes for some species to start an invasion.

Reference: Freeman, M.S. et al. (2016). The paradox of invasion: Reeves’ muntjac deer invade the British Isles from a limited number of founding females. J. Zool. 298: 54-63.

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Next month: More on how grey squirrels conquered Britain; how we may be able to teach indigenous animals in Australia to fear and avoid foxes; and new European legislation that may make it illegal to keep invasive species in captivity in the UK.

As always, I love hearing from readers; any queries or comments regarding the information on the site can be sent in using the addresses on the Contact page. (Note: So: Some website questions are answered on the FAQ, while many animal-related questions are covered in the Q/A). Photos can be e-mailed to a dedicated e-mail address - please keep them coming and don't forget to check out my Photos Needed page. I'm also interested in hearing any reports of unusual behaviour in any of the animals featured on this site, or interactions between humans and wildlife. Thanks as always for your continued patience and support. Finally, thanks to Natasha Weyers and Steph Powley for letting me use their excellent photos this month.

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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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