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I’m a novice at moth trapping and have been meaning to get to grips with moths for some time now. I couldn’t resist the opportunity to provide a bit of entertainment for my nephew Tarn when his best friend Ross came around for a sleepover on a sunny evening. Tarn’s house in Dorking is a quite sheltered and not much in the way of native species so I wasn’t expecting much but nestled into the Surrey Hills it’s not far from the woods.
Tarn and Ross too busy with Minecraft, my other nephew Fenn helped me set up the skinner box, paying particular attention to counting out and lining up the specimen pots. We turned the trap on and left it while we went back inside for the other highlight of the evening: Star Wars The Force Awakens on DVD!
The evenings moth “haul” began unconventionally with two white-tailed bumble bees that were nesting in a nearby nest box and two impressive cockchafer beetles! It wasn’t long before we were attracting some unidentifiable micro-moths though and then the first unmistakable vision of a Brimstone.
We caught 10 identifiably distinct species in all and I was able to put names to three- the Brimstone, Angle shades, and Shuttle Shaped Dart. The rest I’m working on, although if anyone has any ideas with some of the ones below help gratefully excepted (and even corrections if I’ve misidentified any).
But a great evening, and a good activity to continue through June as I attempt my #30dayswild challenge
“….what makes you think the Hare is done with night just because she kicked a badger in the ribs?”
Ever since the days when I thought I might be a druid, the Hare, along with the bear and the wolf, has been an animal of power and magic in my imagination. This triptych is with me daily, three figures adorning my bookshelf, a wolf from the Schleich range of figurines; a brown bear sculpted from who-knows-what rock, a salmon in its jaws; and a hare. The hare is solid carnelian.
Imagine the somersaults in my soul then, when on a unplanned sidestep into The Haslemere Bookstore, heading as I do straight for the nature and wildlife section just by the sales desk, I spy the form of a hare on the cover of a book. Not just any hare this, this is an orange and white poem in paint from the imagination of Carry Akroyd, one of my favourite nature artists. Following the hare I spy fox, barn owl and swan all in the same unmistakeable colours and patterns. As I pick up Hare my fingers delight in the hard spine and rough cover. This is something of substance, an appeal to all the senses as a good book should be. There might be a threshold of stimulation above which the mind dissolves, and suddenly I am aware that the author of this book, these books, is Jim Crumley, and it feels like a dam has been breached somewhere in my head. My brain is so hot it may melt like butter. My cheeks start to sting a little. I feel like I have discovered a treasure hoard, half expect the glittering tail of Smaug the Magnificent to drop from the topmost shelf, backed up by his deadly dentistry. When nothing so dramatic happens, an impulse makes me turn to see if I have been discovered in this intimate moment of joy. I almost set my back to the shelves- this treasure discovered, I will fight all comers; this is too good to share. Instead I walk away as if nothing has happened, calm myself within the earhy logic of the gardening section, then quickly exit the store, £10 poorer but richer beyond my dreams as I slide the paper wrapped……book is such a poor word, this is a doorway…..into my bag.
Jim Crumley has written 30 books and you may imagine from my reaction I have read them all, but my only other encounter with the Scottish nature writer was with The Last Wolf he But what an encounter! In that wonderful book, he told the story of the disappearance of the last wolf in a more or less conventional way through relating the facts of the case and embedding its demise- it’s supposed demise- in a historical context’ He points out how careful we should be about the claims of the killer when such an act could be clearly used for self-aggrandizement and political manoeuvring. Scattered through this interesting read, however, the poet and visionary (dare I say druid?) is shape-shifted into that Last Wolf, and wandered through the glens and lochs that Crumley knows intimately. Through this powerful storytelling technique, despite my own reservations about the possibility of such a thing in the modern human-dominated landscape, I was one with Crumley in his instance that the wolf should be reintroduced to Scotland as an urgent imperative.
Hare is in a series of books called Encounters In the Wild which cover the Barn Owl, Fox and Swan. Each chapter is a different encounter with either (and in one encounter both) the Brown Hare Lepus europeaus and Mountain Hare Lepus lepus. From observations of interactions with fellow denizens of the field and wood in the lowlands, to an inexplicable and solitary quest for the peaks in the mountains, Crumley’s encounters with hares are bought to life through his impeccable attention to the details of how things are and what they do- what a scientist would call morphology and behaviour- shape-shifted with a storytellers heart.
This book is about the hare. There is a chapter about the UK current status of the hare and the appalling slaughter that we wreck on this ever-declining species in the name of sport- both through illegal hare coursing and through state-sponsored massacres in the form of grouse shoots. But Crumley weaves the hare’s tale so much with other animals and with the landscape that it all seems part of the same one thing. And here he is, watching and retelling this tale and it’s clear he is also part of that same magical pattern. But while we know on one level what hares are, we are still far away from fully understanding them, and this series of encounters walks the line of familiarity and mystery perfectly.
“..finally there was a blur of dark brown sodden fur between two clumps of heather, but then it stopped dead still. It could be anything-at-all……The anything at all trembled. The shape shifted. It became taller, developed ears, extraordinary brown and white and grey and black ears that flicked upright and scanned the wood and turned into the wind. To watch a hare reveal itself piecemeal as it both changes shape from low-lying horizontal to tall-sitting vertical and inches back and forward among different clumps of heather and skinny birch clumps is to bear witness to a kind of sorcery.”
Carry Akroyd’s art is a perfect complement to this book. Her work arises from the linocut tradition and is inspired by the wildlife and agricultural landscapes of the East of England, where Brown Hares still do well in decent numbers, and in particular by one of its most famous sons, the poet John Clare. For me it is a reminder of a youth spent at my Aunt, Uncle & Grandparent’s second home in Glinton, outside Peterborough- very near to Clare’s residence and Akroyd’s gallery at Helpston. It was a youth of ladybirds, walks along the edges of vast wheat fields, “hills and hollows” and Peakirk’s Wildfowl, where the sky was huge and forever blue and if you were lucky you would spot Hawker Harrier out from RAF Wittering. But for paralysing hayfever I would have spent more time rooting round rather than looking up at those planes: a story for another day.
As we approach the breeding season when Hares are easily seen in the day, I have been planning with Mammal Group, Wildlife Trust and SBIC colleagues to push on finding out where Hares still exist in Surrey. Watch out for an upcoming blog about a day out searching for them near Cranleigh, almost as far from the snow-covered slopes of Bidean nam Nian as you can be without leaving the mainland. I shall hold these encounters with me; for or an ecologist like me they are a reminder should I need one that looking is the beginning of learning and leads to understanding; but understanding is only part of the story. The head and heart are in one body for a reason.
One line I will also take with me:
“ I realised at this point that the Hare was not in site and neither the badger or I had seen it go.”
Badger and I are will be keeping a careful watch from now on.
A very dear friend of mine was recently bought a lesson at the Hawk Conservancy for her birthday. She is a big fan of birds of prey, especially the kestrel she sees on her daily walk with the dog, but i think the lesson transformed her. Into what remains to be seen! I could definitely see her working with birds of prey but she need to do the Lantra Award in Bird of Prey Management and Husbandry. I remind her that I made the leap from Care Worker into the environment sector- although i had formal qualifications it was the volunteering and building up skills slowly that really mattered in breaking through, not the MSc.
This morning i can’t shake an image out of my head and I finally remembered why; a story on the BBC back in April of the first female trainee Eagle Hunter in the Altai Mountains for 2000 years. I looked up the story again and every time I’m blown away by the images.
As I write this I recall a conversation with my Father on Christmas Day. I was stunned to hear he had been to see the Hobbit: Battle of The Five Armies while visiting my brother before Christmas. Not so strange you might say, but there is history of course. Dad can’t do sci-fi or fantasy that well, so this was a bit of a surprise. Then he recounted the story which I had heard a few times before of the picture he drew as a boy of an eagle standing on a rocky precipice. I reminded him of the picture in my 1974 Tolkien Calendar of Gwaihir the Windlord and Bilbo Baggins and we still haven’t got to the bottom of which came first the picture in the calendar or the memory of the drawing!
And of late as I pass below the chalk escarpment of the Surrey Hills near the Mole Gap on my way home to Dorking via Guildford, I’ve regularly spotted two red kites drifting laconically over the fields and hedgerows below The Wotton Hatch. I have seen soiltary birds before down this way but never a pair. I couldn’t be sure if they were mates, but I hope so.
I’m sure there’s some psychological resonances going on here: a return to the instinctive, the need to take flight, views from above, ability to see hidden truths, hunting success (which remains an elusive prey). I’m grateful to my friend, ever my muse, and my father for pulling these connections together from the Moria- like mines of my subconscious.
And just before I sign off, my favourite bird of prey, the Marsh Harrier. So reminiscent of good times in East Anglia working for the RSPB.
At 05:00 this morning I headed out onto almost deserted roads, the cars outnumbered by planes overhead on their final approaches: as I cruised up the A3 to junction 10 I waved farewell to those heading north into Heathrow and instead turned east onto the M25 with those Gatwick-bound. Our destination was the same, though I was not intent on the glitzy outlets for duty free shopping or awaiting a call, coffee in hand , for a flight to sunnier and more exotic climes. Instead I was headed for some grassy fields on the western side of the airport around the floodplain of the River Mole.
I had been invited to help out with some small mammal trapping at the airport by site ecologist Rachel Bicker and her friend and Sussex Mammal Group member Laurie Jackson. Rachel has been monitoring the site in order to make habitat management plans and has surveyed everything from moths to dormice to bats and herps. No mammal trapping had yet been undertaken, but Laurie and Rachel had found a harvest mouse nest on site. They had put 20 traps (locked open) in two locations on Thursday and the traps had been set on Friday morning by Rachel. On Friday evening at 5:45 I joined them with three others who were interested in gaining some trapping experience to check if the day had brought us any luck. We were rewarded with a bank vole!
I couldn’t attend on Saturday because I was tied up with our annual PTES Harvest Mouse workshop at Thundry Meadows (traps I had put out only caught a vole and nest searches of two areas were fruitless, the first time in 3 years). Rachel had two common shrews Sorex araneus and a wood mouse Apodemus sylvaticus on Saturday morning.
I arrived at the Greyhound Pub in Tinsley Green to pick up Katie May from the Bat Conservation Trust who had offered to help out. As the fog lifted and the morning brightened to a gorgeous sunsparkle October morning, we drove round past the monstrous hangers and the sleeping dragon-like jumbo jets, some roaring into the sky. I wondered if any passenger might spare a thought as they passed over the river to the figures emerging from a battered blue Peugeot van, to don wellingtons and fluorescent jackets and head out along the woodland edge into the surrounding fields, glittering with dew-bedecked spiders webs.
Our first ten traps quickly bought us up to match yesterday morning’s total with a couple of common shrews and a wood mouse. Sadly one shrew had died, not unusual at this time of year. Shrews have a relatively short lifespan and even those born in the spring are unlikely to make it through to the following year. A shrew’s high metabolism also means it need to feed constantly, so a good supply of mealworms- shrews being insectivores- is always required in a trap. Our wood mouse was a pregnant female, not unusual to find one this late in the year but in recent trapping events I have been finding quite a few-dormice also seem to be breeding quite late this year. Perhaps this is to be expected after the very late spring.
We moved on to our second site adjacent to the River Mole where the grass was long and fringing Phragmites reeds and soft rush made it ideal habitat for harvest mice Micromys minutus. Katie and I had just been speaking about harvest mice and then in our next trap we found one! A spectacularly tiny 3g juvenile( too small to sex!) the young of this year. the tiny creature tried valiantly to chew my finger, but his tiny teeth did little to cause me pain. The miniscule harvest mouse is not unlike the shrew in in its short lifespan. Most will be born and die in the same year, although research shows those born in October have the best chance of surviving over winter. Maybe this little chap will have that chance!
We found two more common shrews- one with a curious black rump which made it look half water-shrew! I wondered about the possibility of cross breeding between these two species but its unlikely as they are not even the same genus. Common Shrew –Sorex araneus, Water shrew Neomys fodiens.
We did two ten-minute nest searches in 50m2 around the harvest mice location but failed to find a nest despite suitable habitat structure. I vowed to return with a few more bodies to help out since there was a lot of habitat to cover, not just the grassland but reedbed areas too.
Katie and I walked back to the van buoyant from our discovery. I’m certainly glad I’ve seen my first harvest mouse for the year, even if I can’t add the result to our Surrey dormouse map, Gatwick being just over the border into Sussex. We can however take the news to the River Mole Catchment Partnership newly formed to focus on a long-term vision for the river. Mapping the extent of harvest mice, which are known to fare better in well-connected habitat, along the course of the Mole will give us a way to gauge the success of projects to improve the ecological status of the river as required under the EU water framework directive.
Time for a bacon sandwich and a cup of coffee. Despite the still-early hour I’m too buzzing to snooze!
457 Species and counting!
I love Bioblitz!
Not all of my time is spent out and about on Surrey’s rivers or wetlands searching for the illusive otter and water vole, or creeping along my beloved hedgerows for dormice, stoat or orange-spotted elm-lichen. So when the moment arrives when I can spend 24 hours in the field with my colleagues, sharing my craft, trying out new skills and meeting new species, what would normally be a weekend at work becomes a learning experience.
We are joined in our Natural Geekery by specialists and amateur naturalists who add yet more opportunity to revel in the splendor and complexity of the natural world. Oh and to count stuff! Fox moths, rabbit poo, four spotted chasers, pilot whales (sadly no records yet for Wisley and Ockham), adders, goldfinches, scorpionflies, grey long-eared bats, crane flies and on and on.
Our numbers are finally swelled by throngs of wildlife lovers come for a day out on a wonderful heathland site they may not have visited before, to share with us in the translucent wonder of a newly emerged four spotted chaser’s Libellula quadrimaculata wing or the cryptic camoflage of a Buff Tip Phalera bucephala. Suddenly we are not lonely denizens of the dark corners of society. Everyone here is captivated by wildlife and the sometimes dramatic (an upland mire), sometimes mundane (a garden pond or bird table) landscape we share.
In my more playful moments I imagine these 24 hours sit somewhere between a sci-fi convention and a group therapy session. We all go home with our eyes open, our lives enriched, our sense of wonder renewed. Our Geek groved.
This is the second time out for Surrey Wildlife Trust after last years event in the sizzling sunshine at Norbury Park, near Dorking. I was in my usual role with Surrey Mammal Group https://www.facebook.com/SurreyMammalGroup conducting mammal surveys with SWT Mammal Officer Dave Williams and our SWT/ Mammal Group colleague/ Chobham Common Ranger Darren Brito. At 7pm on Saturday we put out 80 Longworth traps at locations around Pond Farm with 11 keen volunteers embracing grassland, scrub and wetland habitats. Last year at Norbury Park we had transects through grassland, woodland and along hedgerows and as predicted the hedgerows won the day with much more captures and a higher diversity of species. Hedgerows are ace, and here is a plug for Hedgelink https://www.hedgelink.org.uk
I was expecting a good haul of field voles Microtus agrestis after a recent visit to Pond Farm on a tip-off that our elusive water voles Arvicola terrestris might be present, revealed a very healthy population of their smaller cousins.
Dave had to break off early to lead badger watching, which despite the appearance of our two-tone friends on trap cameras earlier in the week, proved fruitless. I joined the bat walk led by Mike Waite and Nicky Williamson as they picked up some Common Pipistrelle Pipistrellus pipistrellus, then headed up to check out the Brown Long-Eared Bat roost Plecotus auritus in Hut Hill Cottage. The bats emerged right on cue, exiting straight out of the rood up into the trees
Walking back through the heathland landscape of Wisley Common I joined a gathering of friends around a moth trap where I stayed till nearly 2pm. The wind was gusting and it was generally not a good night for moths down near Pond Farm, but we managed to attract some wonderful beasties, my favourites being the Lime Hawk Moth Mimas tiliae, Light Emerald Campaea margaritata, Fox Moth Macrothylacia rubi, and Flame Shoulder Ochropleura plecta.
I slept very well in my tent (last used in the Peaks two weekends before) despite the constant roar of traffic on the M25. I dozed off wondering if we’ll ever get a green bridge or two built across it. Its a crime they weren’t built into the original plans. I woke at 5am and felt surprisingly ready for the day ahead.
Twenty keen volunteers turned up at 5:30 the next morning to begin checking traps, all bleary eyed and expectant. I usually love the way tiredness turns into excitement as the captures start rolling in, but as empty trap followed empty trap I realised it wasn’t going to be our year. In April I had organised some trapping at Parsonage Meadow with Alison, Nick and Tony- Guildford Borough Council Wardens who had been on my Mammal Society http://www.mammal.org.uk Mammal ID course at FSC Juniper Hall http://www.field-studies-council.org/centres/juniperhall.aspx which had turned up 1 wood mouse Apodemus sylvaticus in 60 traps! Laura from The Mammal Society had also been in touch with the news that returns on their Mini Mammal Monitoring scheme were low. In total we caught 3 mammals, but the good news was that they were 3 different species: wood mouse, bank vole Myodes glareolus and yellow- necked mouse Apodemus flavicollis. The latter was a new record for the site, and not as common as the wood mouse, so that was some consolation.
I had just enough time after finishing mammal trapping to grab some food and a coffee before I was due out with Jamel Guenioui and James Herd- both SARG http://www.surrey-arg.org.uk/SARG.asp members- for a reptile survey. I was really looking forward to this because It had been a long time since I’d formally surveyed for reptiles as a consultant ecologist, and during my up-coming trip to Romania I’d be leading groups of students on surveys.
When beginning a survey I always breath in deeply and then make a long exhale. Its an attempt to really focus the mind and the eyes on the task ahead, an exercise in mindfulness http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mindfulness. What is important is in front of me now, and thoughts about the past or future are distractions.
It wasn’t long before we had our first slow worm Anguis fragilis, a male, warming beneath one of the refugia James had set up. We caught another, a female this time, together with a grass snake Natrix natrix and a juvenile palmate newt Lissotriton helveticus, almost translucent in his newness. Happily our group had a few dedicated passionate young reptile experts. If it wasn’t for Jeremy (age 12?) we would have missed the adder Vipera berus, which most of us walked past. After the survey I gave him my Reptile Expert badge which he thoroughly deserved for the spot.
There was so much going on when I got back to Base Camp. Heathland plant surveys, dragonfly walks, bird ringing, but I had to lead a mammal tracks and signs walk. This was a novelty for Bioblitz really because its less about ticking off new species and more about taking the first steps in learning to interpret the signs you see. Sort of CSI Bioblitz!
Our first stop was a rabbit Oryctolagus cuniculus warren- fairly mundane you might think, but they are an example of a common species that are overlooked in many surveyors’ records. Perhaps more importantly they should represent a source of records for the elusive Mustelidae meso-predators: weasels Mustela nivalis , stoats Mustela erminea and polecats Mustela putorius. I was really disappointed we found no evidence of at least the first two on our walk. I wouldn’t necessarily expect to see evidence of polecats, though they are colonizing from the west and we are keeping an eye out for them.
Happily the rabbits introduced us to a new concept, coprophagy where rabbits extract excess amount of nutrition from grass by giving their food a second pass through the gut. In short, they eat their own poo! We did find roe deer Caproelus capreolus tracks, and a badger Meles meles latrine and “push” under a fence, with the coarse guard hairs of the badger trapped in a barb on the wire.
It does worry me though, the lack of these small mustelid predators. They are elusive but from anecdotal evidence talking to colleagues. they are rarely seen. I see the problems caused by rabbits preventing coppice regrowth and damaging trees and bemoan the lack of meso-predators and foxes!
As the day drew towards its close I bumped into my nephew and neice Tarn (4) and Nova (7) with their Dad (its okay Nick I won’t tell), who had been enjoying the day while I was busy on surveys. They helped me release some of the inverts from the pond dipping. Tarn asked me “Why do you have to look after wildlife” and “I replied I don’t have to, I want to”.
There are of course so many answers to that question, not least “Somebody has to!” but a short one was best in the afternoon sun and with animminent ride on the horse drawn cart. It seemed to satisfy him for a while, hopefully he’ll come back to me with more questions soon!
Bioblitz 2013 ended in a warm glow of sunshine that fitted perfectly with my sense of satisfaction. There was also only a week to go before I departed on a 7 week Bioblitz in Transylvania with Operation Wallacea.There is an incredible amount of effort that goes into Bioblitz and we have mostly the organisational prowess of Katy Gower, SWT Events Manager, to thank for it. I’m looking forward already to Bioblitz 2014, but I suspect Katy will need time to recover first before we start planning,
Where on Earth will it be? Somewhere in wildlife -rich Surrey no doubt!