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Content Updated: 4th August 2017

SEASONAL UPDATE: August 2017

Backlit dandilion

July was a topsy-turvy month, weather-wise, in the UK. We had baking hot temperatures to start the month, followed by torrential rain and unseasonably strong winds for the latter half. At the same time, much of continental Europe has experienced some of the hottest and driest weather on record, with extensive wildfires in parts of France and Spain and droughts in Italy causing the Vatican to turn off their famous fountains. At the time of writing, the UK remains under the influence of low pressure, which means brisk winds and, at times, heavy rain showers. The longer range forecasts are suggesting this pattern will continue into August, although there is some indication that high pressure will return around the middle of the month, bringing warmer and more settled weather to most of England and Wales, and confine the low to the north-east of Scotland. It will be interesting to see how the British summer draws to a close – overall this year, a mildly disappointing July aside, it seems to have been a good year for insects, butterflies in particular. As always, if the weather is hot and dry, please try to leave some fresh water out in your garden as it can be a real lifesaver for wildlife. Ponds are attractive to wildlife, even more so in hot weather, and hedgehogs have something of a tendency toward climbing or falling in. Consequently, it is a good idea to make sure anything falling into your pond can get out – sloping sides or a piece of wood at a shallow angle leading to the edge are a great idea.

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

Least weaselMammals: Most fox cubs will be almost fully grown by now, and the family will be spending much less (if any) time at the earth, choosing instead to lie-up in cover nearby. The cubs will also be providing most of their own food now, largely in the form of insects and earthworms, as they practice their pouncing and hone their hunting skills, and will be moving over most of their parents’ territory. Consequently, August tends to be the month when fox cubs, particularly males who range farther and earlier than vixens, are killed on roads. As we move out of summer and into autumn, tensions will begin to rise and the family unit will start to break down, resulting in many cubs dispersing to find their own territory.

Deer fawns, kids and calves are well-grown by now and can be found either in small groups within the herd or following their mother. The young deer will be grazing and browsing for themselves, although their mother will continue to suckle them sporadically for another few weeks. For most deer species, August is the last month of relative tranquillity before the rut gets underway in a few weeks. The roe deer, however, is different. Males (bucks) will have established territories by now on which they scent-mark by scraping the ground with their feet, urinating and thrashing small tree saplings with their antlers. Bucks bark (click to listen), both to notify other males that this patch is theirs and to draw in females (does) from the surrounding area. Some deer will have females hanging around and it is common at this time of year to see a buck in hot pursuit of a doe, frequently sniffing at her rear end check how close she is to oestrus. Courtship may involve several minutes of chasing, often in circles around a tree or bush, producing a flattened track of vegetation known as a ‘roe ring’, to stimulate the doe to ovulate. This frenetic activity explains why it is not uncommon to stumble across roe bucks lying in quiet forest stands that don’t immediately get up and flee when they spot you; they’re exhausted! The does leave their usual home ranges, and their kids, to find the bucks, and it’s not uncommon to come across unaccompanied kids in August; she’ll return home to her kids once she’s been mated.

Stoats and weasels (above, right) are very active this month as the family unit starts breaking down and the young begin to disperse. August is also a great month to look out for mice and voles visiting bird feeders checking for spilt seed, and this is the time of year when people notice lots of dead shrews around, most without any obvious signs of trauma. Has some sort of plague has hit the population? Previous authors suggested a wide range of theories to account for this die-off, including that later summer thunderclaps scare them to death. The actual reason, however, is nothing quite so dramatic; these small mammals are short-lived (only about 16 months) and, with their rather frenetic breeding season starting to wind down, many simply die of exhaustion. In fact, some authors suggest that the entire adult population dies off during the late summer and autumn. The strong scent glands in the skin of shrews make them distasteful to many predators, particularly domestic cats, and thus the bodies tend to remain in situ, when those of other small mammals (e.g. mice and voles) are quickly cleaned up by predators. It seems that only owls relish these insectivores.

National Marine Week runs until the 13th August and various wildlife charities, including the Wildlife Trusts and the Marine Conservation Society, are organising events. If you’re heading to the coast for your summer holiday, keep an eye out for our marine mammals. Pods of common dolphins are often seen close to shore during this month, while harbour porpoises may be found chasing shoals of herring in our bays and estuaries. Leatherback turtles are often found in the Irish Sea during this month, and August is a prime month for whale watching, particularly along northern and western coasts.

OystercatcherBirds: The breeding season for our garden birds is over now, and you’ve probably noticed a lull in activity in your garden (although you may have plenty of recently-fledged birds visiting your feeders) as many species are holed up moulting. Furthermore, most cuckoos have now left for Africa, adding to the relative quiet of our woods. Nonetheless, there are still some warblers to be found along with recently-fledged, and very vocal, birds of prey (particularly buzzards and goshawks). Most of our raptors will have also finished breeding now, but hobbies are the latest breeders and many will still have dependents, which means that there are still opportunities to watch their breath-taking aerial acrobatics as they hunt for their chicks. Swallows and swifts are getting harder to find by now, but house martins are still busy; they’re also late breeders and may still be feeding chicks come October.

August is a great month for coastal and estuarine birds; a few to keep an eye out for are sandwich terns, oystercatchers (left), ringed plover, sanderlings and turnstones. August is also an interesting month for duck-spotting. During the summer, male ducks moult out of their breeding plumage and, for a few weeks, they look very similar to the females and juveniles – this is known as eclipse plumage and, because all the wing feathers are moulted at the same time, a duck in eclipse is unable to fly. So, if you spot a duck at your local pond that looks a bit like a cross between a male and female, it is in eclipse.

Reptiles and amphibians: August is a great month for ‘herping’ (searching out reptiles) because it is the time when many of the babies are around. Recently-born common and sand lizards should be about this month and August is the start of the hatching season for Grass snakes; females will have deposited their eggs in a warm moist spot - compost heaps or other piles of rotting vegetation are ideal - back at the start of summer, and the 10cm (4 inch) long babies will hatch out between August and October. It is also worth checking rockeries and under discarded carpet and metal sheeting for slowworms, which give birth to tiny red or gold replicas of themselves during this month. Slowworms, grass snakes and common lizards can be found almost anywhere, from parks and large gardens to coastal dune systems. The small olive-grey young common lizards often hang around in groups of three or four, making them a little more obvious. Overall, heathland is your best bet for reptiles, so if you have any locally it is well worth a visit at this time of year.

August is also a good month for finding froglets, toadlets and newtlets. Check areas of long grass or log piles for these miniature amphibians, which are most active at night.

Bee on hebeInvertebrates: There are lots of grasshoppers and crickets stridulating (singing) at the moment, and it pays to be careful if you’re cutting the lawn this month because grasshoppers are more common in gardens than many people think – we have the occasional one on our small lawn here in the middle of Southampton. There are also still plenty of butterflies around and the second brood of peacock butterflies can be found on thistles and buddleia across the country, excluding the far north of Scotland. Red admirals, large whites, burnet moths, red underwings, marbled greens, small tortoiseshell, and the tiny delicate orange small copper can also be found this month – whatever butterflies you see this month, please take a moment to log them with the Big Butterfly Count via their website. A walk past a pond, stream or across a heathland is likely to turn up a variety of dragonflies and damselflies this month – keep an eye out for ruddy darters, common darters, the stunning golden-ringed dragonfly and beautiful demoiselles. There are also a variety of bees, wasps, hoverflies and sunflies around during this month which warrant a closer look. August is a great month to look for Britain’s 22 bumblebee species. One bee species in particular to keep an eye out for this month is the tree bumblebee, with its reddish thorax and black abdomen with white tail; please log any sightings with the Bees, Wasps and Ants Recording Society.

July is the peak month for glowworms, but a few females may still be found glowing during August; check long grass, particularly chalk grassland/downland in southern England, as well as railway embankments, commons and orchards. For the brave among us, August can also be a good spider-hunting month. There are still a few wolf spiders in the garden carrying their creamy-white egg sacs; once these hatch out, the spiderlings will ride on their mum’s abdomen for a week-or-so. Garden spiders seem to be everywhere at the moment, too. Probably the spider ‘king’ this month is the strikingly attractive yellow and black striped wasp spider; the amorous female, who normally spends most of her time down in the long grass, climbs up and sits in the middle of her web during August to attract males.

Plants and fungi: Surprisingly fragrant thistles are in bloom this month (look closely, they’re often being attacked by caterpillars, particularly of the cinnabar moth), as are large pale pink blooms of thyme that are often smelled before they’re spotted. Searching along stone walls may reveal the delicate pink flowers of Ivy-leaved toadflax, grey woolly growths of grey cushion moss, and the bright yellow tubular flowers of the yellow cordylis. Another yellow flower out this month adds a splash of colour to shingly shores - the beautiful, but poisonous, yellow-horned poppy is in bloom along coastal fringes of southern England during August. Deadly nightshade, with its shiny black berries mounted on a setting of five pale green sepals, can also be found; it thrives on chalk and limestone soils. Fungi-wise, it is still relatively quiet (although the cool wet summer we seem to be having may well lead to a bumper crop this autumn) but some large parasol mushrooms can be found in grassland this month.

Finally, many trees are starting to produce/ripen their fruit, and the Natural History Museum wants your help as they launch their survey of tree health; you can find out more about the survey and download an ID guide from their website.

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Discovery of the Month – Beavers increase wetland diversity

European beaverFor many years, conservationists have been raising concerns about habitat degradation across the planet. Increasing agricultural activities, livestock grazing, deforestation, and urban sprawl take their toll on our natural ecosystems, fragmenting them, polluting them and, more generally, reducing their diversity. The result is that these ecosystems are less resilient to the kinds of environmental changes we’re increasingly witnessing. Reduced diversity within the ecosystem can also have a negative impact; removal of bees or other pollinators from an area, for example, can have dire economic impacts. Among these degraded habitats, freshwater ecosystems are often overlooked, despite fresh water being so fundamental to life. We know that freshwater systems can act as carbon sinks, slow down water movement to reduce flooding, provide crucial drinking water and are also species-rich, supporting about 12% of the world’s known animal species, despite covering less than 1% of the Earth’s surface. Nonetheless, these systems are frequently modified by human activity, overexploited and polluted. In 2005, for example, the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment reported that just over half the world’s wetland habitat had been lost during the 20th century. Once degraded or destroyed, a great deal of time, money and effort needs to be invested to restore the habitat, with restoration and re-wilding schemes having increased in popularity in recent years.

One way of restoring a habitat is to introduce species that we refer to as ecosystem engineers. These are the species that actively modify their environment through their day to day activities. Here in the New Forest, for example, the free-ranging ponies, cattle and deer graze and browse the land and reduce or prevent forest regeneration – this allows the persistence of heathland habitat that is so rare in southern Britain. Beavers are another example of an ecosystem engineer. Beavers construct interwoven piles of branches along river and stream courses, blocking the flow and flooding the surrounding land, resulting in the creation of wetland habitat. On dry land, the beavers’ coppicing activity promotes more vigorous tree growth and this wetland habitat has a higher species richness than the pasture that was there previously, although only recently have we come to realise how much.

In the summer of 2002, a pair of Eurasian beavers (Castor fiber) were introduced on to a 525 hectare private estate near Blairgowrie in eastern Scotland, and so began a study to monitor their impacts. Vegetation surveys were carried out in the summers of 2003, 2004, 2012 and 2014 by joint team at the University of Stirling, Scottish Natural Heritage and the Bamff Estate in Alyth. The team, led by Alan Law, reported the results of the 12 year study in a recent paper to Science of the Total Environment. At the end of the study, the area in which the beavers were released had a mean species richness of 46% compared to the ungrazed sections from which the beavers were excluded (exclosures). In total, the number of species recorded increased by an average of 148% and habitat heterogeneity (i.e. dissimilarity) increased by 71%. In their paper, the biologists summed up by saying:

After 12 years of habitat engineering by beaver the study site was almost unrecognisable from its initial state, with a mosaic of aquatic, semi-aquatic and terrestrial habitat patches having formed, evidenced by parallel changes in plot- and site-scale plant richness and composition. Not only is engineering by beaver thus beneficial to conserving and promoting a range of freshwater biota, including plants … and invertebrates …, but the increased richness and diversity in an intensively modified landscape will likely also improve ecosystem function and resilience.”

They do note that beavers aren’t a ‘magic bullet’ to the problem of wetland regeneration and that the wider effects of reintroducing a rodent species that has been absent from the British Isles for some 400 years warrant further study. Indeed, there has been significant opposition to beaver reintroduction programmes in the UK, with anglers expressing concerns over their impact on fish stocks and farmers worried that they may damage crops and spread disease to livestock. This work by Law and his colleagues is the first long-term empirical data we have to show that beavers can have a significant role in the conservation and some of Britain’s degraded habitats, but a balance will need to be struck with those living on and working the land.

Reference: Law, A. et al. (2017). Using ecosystem engineers as tools in habitat restoration and rewilding: beaver and wetlands. Sci. Total Environ. 605-606: 1021-1030.

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Profile of the Month – Gill Lucraft, Hedgehog Bottom Rescue founder

Hedgehog being syringe fedThis month we get a glimpse into the life of hedgehog rescuer Gill Lucraft who set up and manages the Hedgehog Bottom Rescue in Thatcham, Berkshire. Rescues like Gill’s are always busy at this time of year, dealing with many hoglets brought in. Your support, be it money, old newspapers to line cages, things from their Amazon wishlist or your time as a volunteer, is always appreciated.

Tell us a little about yourself
I’ve been in information technology all my working life so what I do now seems a little incongruous until you talk to my mother who will regale you with stories of half dead creatures I used to drag home for her to fix. I was lucky enough to grow up near a disused farm at the source of the river Lea and my mates and I used to spend inordinate amounts of time trying to catch non-existent sticklebacks.

I’ve always had pets, a hamster called Hamish was the first, then a cat, then a blind dog who used to try to mount all the local dogs from the wrong end which always went down well with the owners. Various cats and now hedgehogs. I still fit some web work in around poo and maggots.

How did Hedgehog Bottom Rescue come about?
In 2007 we had floods and our fence repair man offered to sweep up a pile of leaves which promptly ran off down the garden. I went online to find out how to look after the culprit and found Derek Knight who ran Epping Hedgehog Rescue. That man is either a Saint for putting up with me or a pain for getting me started on this. Whatever, some while later a neighbour posted a photo of a hoglet out in the full sun. The following day it staggered out from under a bush and collapsed at my feet. We took it to a localish rescue and never heard of it again. When another one turned up we figured we could do it ourselves and I got back on to Derek. The rest is a slippery slope to hundreds of sick and injured animals each year.

If such a thing exists, what does an ‘average’ day for you involve?
Strong coffee. Answer the phone and give advice. Answer the phone again, answer the door, pour away cold coffee, make another one, let the volunteers in. Go through the diary for the day, answer the phone. Pour away cold coffee and…

The normal routine is clean out all cages each morning. Weigh the occupants, note any problems in the day book, put food and water in and replace the occupant/s. Complete cage notes. Check faecal samples for parasites and complete the treatment diary based on findings. Draw up the medications, administer, complete cage notes and day book.

Answer anything up to 50 emails and Facebook messages from all over the world. Do the washing, check stock, put in orders. Recheck the cages, top up food and water as required, do second round of medications if needed. In between all this answer the phone repeatedly and deal with admissions.

Hedgehog caught in nettingHave breakfast, lunch and tea all in one go at 10pm and finally finish a hot cup of coffee. Fall into bed then drag yourself out again because somebody is hammering on the door with a species we don’t deal with but now have to take in as nowhere else will at midnight.

What do you love about your job and why?
It’s a privilege to work with what I believe to be THE most amazing animal around today. Where else can you look into the eyes of an ancient creature that is rarely aggressive yet so badly treated by humans? The injuries and issues they come in with have to be seen to be believed but they are still trying to carry on. Things that would have us flat on the floor and screaming our head off is just something they get on with. They can teach us a lot if we care to look.

What’s the least favourite part of your job and why?
People. Pure and simple. Oh, and maggots and ticks. We deal with some amazing people who go above and beyond to help wild creatures but we also meet some of the most disgusting, uncaring, cruel and just plain ignorant beings that I would hesitate to call human. When you have had a hard day, lost an animal you have turned cartwheels to pull through, and then you get an ignoramus who thinks you should clear up the mess he/she has caused and now wants to wash their hands of, no further effort expended, and who will descend to blackmail to get what they want, that’s when most rescues are tempted to jack it all in.

Are there any valuable lessons rescuing wildlife has taught you?
Well, if you had asked me 10 years ago if I would be crawling out of bed at silly o’clock to stick a needle in a hedgehog’s bottom, peering at poo down a microscope, doing basic operations to stabilise an animal until it can see a vet, or cutting open a deceased animal to find out why it died, I would have told you that you were stark staring bonkers. I now do most of the above on a daily basis.

I also now have a much more realistic outlook on life and death. If a pet is terminally ill, it would never occur to me to want to keep it going with drugs to save my hurt. If an animal is suffering I have no qualms in letting it go.

If you could encourage the public to do one thing to help their local wildlife, what would that be?
Research. People often make things worse following the old wives’ tales. Giving milk to hedgehogs is still something we get told on a weekly basis even after years of saying it’s lethal for them.

If there is a sick or injured animal, if possible cover it to keep it calm and stop it crawling away then call a rescue for advice before acting. So many more could be saved if people didn’t guess at what was needed.I would also add a plea to cut the rescues some slack. We are almost all volunteers, we do this out of love for the animals and we really don’t need to take abuse.

Hoglets suckling

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

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

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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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