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Content Updated: 6th April 2014

SEASONAL UPDATE: April 2014

April Sunrise

Welcome to April and, on average, statistically the second rainiest month of the year! Judging by the large number of low pressure systems that are hanging around in the North Atlantic at the moment, it looks like the start of April is true to form. March was generally milder and drier than we might normally expect, although we have seen some typical spring weather, with some cold and frosty nights and a nagging chilly easterly wind towards the end of the month. Fortunately, a few degrees change in the wind direction last weekend meant that much of central and southern England were bathed in mild air from the continent, experiencing temperatures in the high teens, while northern England and Scotland have seen temperatures climb to less than 10 deg-C. The long-range forecast for this month predicts an unsettled April, with a south-westerly airflow bringing bands of wind and rain across the country, interspersed with brighter periods. It looks like the best of the weather will be in the south and east of England, with the north and west bearing the brunt of the rain. Still, the Daily Express published a story last month forecasting 100 days of boiling sunshine, so they’re obviously preparing for a summer to remember! That said, the same tabloid also forecast 100 days of ice and snow over the winter…

Despite the wet winter and the potential for an unsettled spring, the current bout of warm, dry weather across much of central and southern England has meant that there is now much wildlife to be found. So, before we look at our species feature for this month, the European mole, let’s have a quick look at the wildlife out and about this month.

Red fox cubMammals: April is the month of fox cubs. Some early-born litters will be out-and-about by now, but most vixens give birth during mid-March, and their cubs appear above ground, at four to six weeks old, in mid-to-late April. As the cubs grow so too does their confidence and they will start playing farther from the earth, but initially they will stick close by the entrance to the earth and will vanish at the first disturbance. Once they appear above ground, the cubs will supplement the milk provided by their mother (and sometimes big sister or aunt, depending on the social structure of the group) with food brought back by the parents and any ‘helpers’. Consequently, April is also a good month to see adult foxes, because the adults in the group are busy hunting for themselves and their cubs, causing their activity to increasingly spill over into daylight – particularly given that daylight hours are increasing. Many badger clans will also have cubs by now, although the youngsters don’t tend to emerge from the sett until May at around eight-weeks-old.

The trailcam has picked up a resumption of hedgehog activity in the garden, as also evidenced by the increasing amount of hedgehog scat to be found on the lawn, and I would be most surprised if there were any hogs still in hibernation by now. Please remember that hedgehogs lose a lot of weight during hibernation and they often arouse hungry and thirsty, so if you can leave some food and (more importantly) a saucer of fresh water out at night, this can literally be a life saver for them. Now the hedgehogs are up and about, they will spend a few weeks feeding, before their attentions move to breeding. Our deer are also now undergoing a change, moulting into their summer coat and having lost, or in the process of losing, their antlers (well, in the case of Red, Fallow and Sika); at this time of year we tend to see that deer move into bachelor or matriarchal groups, and spend the summer feeding up. Many of the female deer will now be pregnant and will drop their young in June. I have seen some Roe deer that have now completed their antler development and shed their velvet, but most still seem to be in velvet at the moment.

Elsewhere in the mammal world, April is a great time to go for a walk with the bat detector (bats, too, will be out of hibernation now and looking for food). Bank vole numbers seem quite high again this year (despite the very wet winter) and they seemed to be everywhere on the New Forest last weekend – good news for foxes, kestrels, owls and a wealth of other predators.

Birds: April can often be a bit of a slow month for birders, with many of the winter visitors having left, but many of the summer visitors having yet to arrive. There are, however, still a couple of Great Grey shrikes here on the New Forest, and I saw the first report of a cuckoo calling in Hampshire on Saturday. A walk around my local lakes on Sunday morning treated me to a cacophony of birdsong (which is continuing late into the evening, thanks to the longer days), including a number of Common chiffchaffs; these small olive-coloured warblers are resident in some of the south of England and Wales, but many arrive from the continent during March, migrating up the country during the spring and summer. My local Great Crested grebes were also showing great interest in a couple of the nest platforms on the lake and there was some preliminary courtship (i.e. the pair facing each other, turning their heads and craning their heads backwards). The crescendo of grebe courtship is called ‘weed dancing’ and involves both birds diving, collecting some weed and then swimming at full-pelt towards one another before rising up on their feet at the last minute and kicking vigorously while turning heads in opposite directions; a spectacle well worth trying to watch.

Ospreys will also be appearing in our estuaries in the next couple of weeks, while swallows, swifts and martins will also start screeching across the skies. Other feathered species to look out for in April include redstarts, hawfinch, Song thrushes, starlings, lapwings, herons, firecrests, Dartford warblers, skylarks, yellowhammers, and egrets. Here on the New Forest, at least one of the goshawk pairs is on eggs now, while kingfishers are also starting to court and nest now. Tawny owls are the earliest of our breeding owls and many will be on eggs now; watch out for the fluffy light grey owlets sitting on branches near the next during late April or early May.

Common lizardReptiles and Amphibians: April is a good month to go out reptile spotting and I have found adders, Grass snakes and Common lizards out basking on the New Forest in the last couple of weeks. Grass snakes can be found in many woodland and farmland habitats, although they are often encountered close to water; they are accomplished swimmers and frequently take frogs and fish. Adders are often found basking in sunny woodland clearings, although heathland is also a good habitat for them and other reptiles. I find warm, dry but overcast days with light winds are often particularly good for reptile photography because it takes them longer to warm up, meaning that they’re less likely to immediately scarper from their basking spot, allowing for a couple of photos. If you do startle a basking adder or Grass snake, sit and wait – they often have favoured basking spots and may return to continue basking after 15-20 minutes. It is also worth checking around compost heaps and sunny corners of gardens and allotments for slowworms; these legless lizards are common garden residents. I should take this opportunity to reiterate that, when watching or photographing animals, their well-being should always come first. If it looks like you’re disturbing the animal, move away slowly and leave them in peace. I always use a long lens (300mm or longer) to prevent me needing to get too close.

Amphibian-wise, there are still a few spawning frogs to be found, but most of the activity seems to have died down now. Indeed, several of my local ponds are now teeming with very active tadpoles and the ones in our pond are starting to develop leg buds. Newts are still breeding, however, and it’s worth looking closely in the shallow end of your local pond for the tail-flicking display that the males use to woo females. Once mated, the female lays individual eggs, each wrapped in a leaf. If you check the submerged vegetation around the edge of the pond, you’ll likely find some with leaves folded over; each folded leaf will hide a single egg.

Invertebrates: As the weather warms up, butterflies are now becoming an increasingly common sight, with Small tortoiseshell, peacock, brimstone and comma about in the New Forest at the moment. Other species to watch out for this month include orange-tips, Holly blues, Green hairstreak, Green-veined white, Speckled wood and Pearl-bordered fritillary. There are also a lot of Wolf spiders around at the moment; our lawn and the New Forest grasslands are heaving with these small brown arachnids at the moment. As spring progresses, keep an eye out for females carrying pale blue or cream egg sacs. There are also plenty of hoverflies around at the moment and the endearing little Bee-flies doing the rounds of our parks, gardens and woodlands.

The UK is home to about 4,000 species of beetle and this month is good for turning over logs looking for them. Beetles out and about this month include various species of ladybird, Bloody-nosed beetles, Minotaur beetles and Green tiger beetles.

Plants and Fungi: For me, blossom is a sign of spring (even though it often arrives during the late winter) and there is plenty around at the moment. Verges and banks are now alive with colour provided by campion, violets, forget-me-not, and daffodils. A splash of yellow is added to the countryside by cowslip and, if you’re lucky, the now scarce oxlip. Wild garlic is also in bloom during April, with its distinctive heady aroma filling the air on a warm day. The leaves of Wild garlic are edible, but be sure of your identification because similar-looking plants (e.g. Lily of the Valley, Meadow saffron, Arum lily, etc.) are poisonous.

There isn’t much in the way of fungi about this month, although St George’s Mushroom is one of the few that fruits during April, producing large, creamy-white caps up to about 15cm (6 in.) in diameter on old grassland and birch woodland.

Pick of the Month – the European mole (Talpa europaea)

European moleLoathed by many gardeners, but endearing to generations of children that have grown up with Kenneth Grahame’s 1908 book, The Wind in the Willows, there can be few other British animals that is as well known but as seldom seen as the mole. Few people have ever seen a live mole, and yet large spade-like front paws, tiny eyes and soft black velvety fur are all characteristics that we immediately associate with this mammal thanks, in part, to Arthur Rackman’s true-to-life illustrations of Mole in Grahame’s novel. The mole has an interesting place in British culture being attributed a variety of activities, from the death of William of Orange to the forecasting of the weather. The Jacobites toasted the ‘little gentleman in black velvet’ in celebration of the death of King William III who died from medical complications associated with a fractured clavicle that he sustained when he was thrown from his horse when it stumbled over a molehill at Hampton Court in 1702. In his 1790 poem the Village Curate, Reverent James Hurdis suggested that the larger and more numerous the molehills, the greater the likelihood of rain. I know of no evidence to support Hurdis’ intimation, but there is some ecological grounding to the idea; we now know that worms can sense the changes in atmospheric moisture and pressure that often precede rain and move into shallow soil, followed by the moles that predate them. Thus, increased mole activity in the surface layers (as evidenced by a large number of molehills) could indicate increased worm activity and this, in turn, might indicate a storm coming. As I said, I know of know of no statistical correlation between mole activity and rain, but it is an intriguing notion! Indeed, wetter weather in spring is, as we shall see, part of what makes April a good month to go mole-spotting.

So, first things first: what is a mole and where can you find them? Early naturalists grouped most of the insect-eating mammals together in a taxonomic ‘catch all’ called the Insectivora. More recently, however, genetic studies have shown that this grouping is incorrect and suggested a splitting of these species. One of these groups, the order Eulipotyphla (pronounced: you-lip-o-tie-fla), contains the hedgehogs, shrews, desmans and moles. (Some authors, incidentally, refer to this group as the Soricomorpha, meaning literally ‘shrew-like’.) The Eulipotyphla holds six families, including the Talpidae (‘true moles’), which contains about 46 species; the European mole (Talpa europaea) being one. Moles have short (averaging around 12cm / 5 in.), cylindrical bodies, tiny eyes (only ca. 1mm in diameter), very small ears that are little more than ridges under the fur, a short tail and large spade-like forepaws that allow it to ‘swim’ through the soil. Moles weigh between about 60g and 120g (2-4 oz.) and their head and feet are covered in highly sensitive hairs that are used to monitor air movements in the tunnel system. The fur is typically black or very dark brown with a velvety texture, although creamy white, tan and albino individuals are known; the fur isn’t slanted as it is in most mammals and can thus be brushed in either direction, allowing the mole to move in either direction in a tunnel system that is often too narrow to permit turning. There is virtually no difference between the sexes (females tend to be larger than males, but only by about 5%) such that sexing them typically requires dissection.

earthwormTalpa is the Latin word for ‘mole’, and as such its Latin name translates as ‘mole of Europe’. This name gives us as clue as to the distribution of this diminutive mammal, which is widespread in Britain and Europe. The most recent (2008) Molewatch data suggest that moles are found in every English and Welsh county, although there are notable absences from London and parts of the Thames Valley; they’re also present in Scotland (primarily in the east, although we don’t have much data on their precise distribution), but absent from Ireland. European moles prefer deciduous woodland, parkland and farmland and the products of their activity (molehills) are frequently found in gardens, commons, greens and verges that border favoured habitat. They are rarely encountered in conifer forests, fenland or on agricultural land that is regularly ploughed (destroying their tunnel network).

Moles eat invertebrates; the largest contributor to their diet in all seasons is earthworms, which can make up 90% of their diet during the winter. Fewer worms are eaten during the summer (ca. 50% of the diet), when their diet broadens to include various other soil-dwelling insects, including millipedes, centipedes, insect larvae, molluscs, along with carrion (e.g. reptiles, rodents, birds and other moles) that is scavenged opportunistically. In pine forests, where soil invertebrates are rarer, moles may supplement their diet with plant matter; one study in Berlin found truffles in the stomachs of 30% of the moles they captured. Owing to their small size, adult moles have a voracious appetite; they need to feed roughly every six hours and will consume half their body weight each day (some 25 worms). The tunnels that moles construct and defend from others act as ‘pitfall’ traps for invertebrates, which fall in while burrowing. A mole’s snout is covered in thousands of touch receptors called Eimer’s organs that have a large number of nerves connected to them, making them highly sensitive. When an invertebrate falls into the tunnel system, the mole can detect the change in barometric pressure and moves quickly to retrieve the prey. Moles also have an excellent sense of smell and appear able to smell an earthworm through 8cm (3in) of clay.

Mole front pawMany of us have never seen, and will never see, a mole, but we are nonetheless familiar with the signs of their presence. As moles move around underground, they shift large quantities of soil – one study estimated that a single mole can move six kilos (13 lbs) of soil during only 20 minutes of tunnel excavation. The soil excavated to produce and maintain the tunnel network (which is crucial for the mole if it is to secure enough food) is pushed to the surface , producing the mounds of soil we refer to as molehills or, in some older literature, ‘tumps’. Excavated soil is high quality and many gardeners collect it and use it to pot up seedlings and plants. The tunnel systems are hugely elaborate, with hundreds of metres of tunnel, 4-5cm in diameter, at various different levels in the soil that stretch over an area of up to eight sq-km (two acres); males range over the greatest areas, travelling farther and deeper during the winter months when food is more difficult to come by. Moles don’t dig during every foraging trip and once a tunnel system has been established the rate of digging declines such that molehill production slows (being largely the product of maintenance of the tunnel system). Furthermore, the distance a mole travels will depend on the availability of food and two moles may create tunnel networks that partially under- or overlie those of their neighbours, without actually being connected. Consequently, the number of mole hills in an area is not an accurate indicator of the number of moles around.

In most cases, molehills are relatively small conical spoil heaps, not greater than about 20cm (8in.) high. In some instances, however, a larger heap may be created, covering a nest chamber filled with woven dried grass and other vegetation, and housing several caches of earthworms collected during times of plenty. These large mounds may contain up to 750kg (1,600 lbs) of soil and stand more than 100cm (just over 3ft) tall. Fortresses represent a significant investment for the mole and it has long been a puzzling construction for such a small mammal. Early naturalists believed the fortress to offer escape for the mole in the event that the soil flooded; fortresses are often (although not exclusively) found in shallow soils, which may be more prone to flooding than deeper soil. A fascinating experiment by Martyn Gorman and David Stone, however, suggested a different reason for fortress construction. Gorman and Stone inserted a thermostatically-controlled heating element into a dead mole and placed it into a nest box to assess what impact covering it in soil had on heat loss in freezing conditions. The biologists found that, when they covered the mole with a fortress of soil about 150cm wide and 100 cm deep (i.e. 5ft by 3ft), it reduced the heat loss by 30%! So, the fortress plays an important role in keeping the mole warm, as well as providing convenient storage for its earthworm larders.

Mole (WikiPedia)Molehills tend to start appearing in greater numbers during April, much to the fury of gardeners, and there are two reasons for this: as the weather warms up, earthworms move up into shallower soil and the worms follow them; and it is the mole breeding season. The breeding season spans late February to early June in the UK (starting earlier in southern England than in Scotland, presumably in response to spring temperatures) and the female mole is receptive to mating for only three-or-four days during each cycle. Gestation lasts for about four weeks with most pups born during April and May in southern England and June of July in Scotland; in southern England a second mating may occur during the summer. The average litter size is four pups, which are born hairless and weighing around 3.5g (one-tenth oz.). For the first fortnight the mother leaves only briefly to collect food – she cannot be away long because the pups cannot regulate their own body temperature. At around two-weeks-old, the fur begins to grow and their eyes open at around 22 days old. For the first month the pups are fed exclusively on milk and they grow rapidly, such that by the time they start taking solid food they weigh about 60g (2 oz.) and are about 120mm (half-inch) long. The pups are fully weaned and start exploring the tunnels at about five-weeks-old, often accompanied by their mother, and are actively using the tunnel system to find their own food by seven-weeks-old. Dispersal can happen at any point between five- and nine-weeks-old and dispersal normally occurs above ground. It is during this dispersal period that the moles are at the greatest risk of predation. Despite being distasteful to most predators (Tawny owls apparently being the exception!), moles are often killed by foxes because these predators hunt largely by sound, rather than sight (hence they don't know what they've got until they've caught it). The pups are fully grown by three-months-old and become sexually mature during the following spring.

Molehills on playing field

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. Whatever you're up to this month, have fun and I look forward to seeing you back here next 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, 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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