Moles and drought – plus a little owl

Just over a week ago, the three of us were going with Katie, a friend from London, along the back lane from Shapwick to Ashcott. I was focusing on Joshua so, if Katie hadn’t exclaimed, would have completely missed an unusual sight: a mole sprinting – as much as a mole can sprint – along the side of the lane. It crossed over and dived into a roadside ditch, just before a van drove past.

For once I managed to think quickly enough and realised that my iPhone was the best chance I had of recording the event.

Mole running along the back road from Shapwick to Ashcott

My delight at seeing a live mole for the first time in my life was tempered by the realisation that its running along the road – as opposed to going along a deep tunnel underground – was almost certainly a reaction to the drought.

Anecdotal evidence indicates that this is happening quite widely. On the Mammal Society’s Facebook page one member (“Bog Myrtle”) reported having come across four dead moles in her travels in West Dorset, and another came across two near Bristol – in both cases, in places where previously they hadn’t encountered any. A local Somerset photographer recently obtained a shot of a fox with a mole in its mouth. It’s not possible to quantify such anecdotal evidence but it does suggest that many moles are suffering badly because of the drought.

Mole running along the back road from Shapwick to Ashcott

I tried a little Internet research but couldn’t get much further than rather general statements. I read that in drought moles are known to head above ground in search of water. I also read that they go down to their deepest burrows, to find worms which have responded to drought by digging deeper. This is a little contradictory and I’m left with a feeling that there’s some guesswork going on.

Seeing this particular mole has prompted me to ask some obvious questions. What if the drought is so long that the worms descend below a mole’s deepest burrows? And what if the ground is so dry and hard that a mole can’t excavate any deeper? Would that not impel a mole in desperation to head in the opposite direction, up out of its network of burrows to find somewhere – anywhere – with food? Even if that meant sprinting along tarmac? And, more importantly, once it does that – what are its chances of survival?

I could easily have missed it, but I haven’t found evidence of research about the effect of drought on moles. This region could present a good one to study because there’s an interesting contrast between the dry Polden Hills, where this mole was running, and the marshy fields a mile away in the Levels, which remain moist not far below the surface. The weather conditions would be almost identical. Maybe this could be a potential project for a field biologist?!

Little Owl near Moorlinch

On a more cheerful note, Jen and I encountered a little owl near Moorlinch a few weeks back. I chanced upon it again a couple of weeks later and, as I happened to have a camera with me, stopped to photograph it. As these were my first decent photographs of an owl, I was well pleased. Nevertheless, I decided that it was worth trying for better photos… so a week later I obtained a pass out from Jen 🙂 and headed back to the Moorlinch area. I did a couple of circuits of the area, and drew a blank. Then I noticed a familiar shape on the top of a small barn, and gradually approached closer. It was a very obliging bird as by the end I’m sure it saw me directly, but didn’t fly off.

Little Owl near Moorlinch

Little Owl near Moorlinch

Little Owl near Moorlinch

Future forests of the past

It’s not often that a headline will make me want to buy a newspaper immediately – but this one from the Western Daily Press did so: “Forest hope for pine martens”. The article described a new study, by the Gloucestershire Wildlife Trust, which is directed towards the future release of pine martens in the Forest of Dean. A few years ago, I went to a wildlife hide in the Cairngorms specifically to see the pine martens (see photo); so I’d be delighted to see them much closer in the next-door county!

Pine marten at the Speyside wildlife hide near Aviemore: they’re very engaging animals, which would boost ecotourism in the Forest of Dean.

Re-introducing formerly native species back into the UK is something that I’m very interested in. Thus, in 2010 I went to Knapdale Forest in Argyll to see the beavers that had been released there, and have been following the progress of the beaver re-introductions ever since.

So why should we be releasing species back into the wild? Here are a few reasons.

  • Hunting by humans led to the extinction of beavers four hundred years ago, and the restriction of pine martens to the remoter parts of Scotland. Now, in a much more conservation-minded era, I think we have a moral obligation to release these species back into the wild.
  • As these species used to be part of the British ecosystem, there is little doubt that they would again thrive in the UK. Furthermore, they’d return to an ecosystem that co-evolved with them – and would have none of the problems associated with alien species like coypus and American mink (about which, more in a moment).
  • They would bring beneficial effects to other species. For example, writing about the alien grey squirrels and their detrimental effect on our native reds, George Monbiot wrote, “…there is another way of dealing with grey squirrels, which requires hardly any expense, indeed hardly any human intervention at all. Unlike trapping, shooting or poisoning, it works. It is happening with extreme prejudice in Ireland at the moment. There is a scientific term for this method. Pine martens.” Monbiot went on to describe how the introduction of pine martens into Ireland had a dramatic effect: the reds – which are too fast and agile to be easy prey – have been bouncing back, at the expense of their slower and fatter grey cousins.
  • Beaver in Knapdale Forest: it was well worth a midge-infested dawn walk to see them!

    Beavers are regarded as natural ecosystem engineers, because their dams create new habitat, such as ponds. They are likely to have a strongly positive effect on biodiversity. A detailed analysis in Mammal Review showed that otters, water voles and great crested newts, which are all nationally endangered, should all be beneficiaries.

  • Ecotourism is profitable. I’m an example of the potential market for this, as someone who has made efforts to see pine martens, beavers and otters. As I chat with people in the bird hides here, I’m conscious of how many people travel large distances in order to see the wildlife in the Somerset Levels, which suggests that the ecotourism market is quite large.

The process to re-introduce a species does, however, seem slow and expensive. One of the intriguing aspects to the re-introduction of beavers is that there has been a highly successful unofficial release program in the Tay valley at the same time as the rather expensive formal scheme run by Scottish National Heritage in Knapdale Forest, Argyll. Jim Crumley describes this in his engaging and enthusiastic book, “Nature’s architects: the beaver’s return to our wild landscapes”. There is much more romance to the unofficial scheme than to the rather plodding official one – but history reveals a less rosy record regarding other unplanned releases.

  • When I was a kid and my parents took me to the RSPB’s Minsmere reserve, I was excited to see a coypu from one of the less well frequented hides. This would no longer be possible because they have now been exterminated, as their effect on the landscape is destructive (for example, in severely damaging reedbeds), without the redeeming features of beaver engineering. For a species that is a resident of South America, there was an understandable lack of sympathy. They are regarded as a pest species in France and other parts of Europe. [ref]

Coypu in western France near Cenon-sur-Vienne

  • Like coypus, American mink were brought into the UK for fur farming, but regular escapes led to a growing British poulation which had a devastating effect on our own water voles. This is because mink are small enough to be able to pursue water voles into their own burrows, and their daily need for meat is particularly high when they are feeding their young. While strenuous efforts are being made to eradicate them, this is proving very difficult. As it happens, some of the best allies in this are otters, for whom mink are a nice meal, and for whom water vole burrows are too small.

These two ecological disasters illustrate why official release schemes, for all their slowness and bureaucracy, are actually needed.

Other ideas that are being circulated include the desire to release a top predator into the wild. The likeliest, at least in the near future, is the lynx. As a secretive, solitary cat it is likely to spend most of its time hiding in forests, dining on deer, avoiding human contact and ignoring sheep. The Lynx UK Trust is currently leading the campaign for their re-introduction, and would like to release them into the Kielder Forest area of Northumberland (where Jen and I went recently) and the Borders.

Another species is the wolf. Their re-introduction to Yellowstone has had a dramatic effect on the entire ecosystem: the elk moved from grazing out in the open to frequenting denser woodland; aspen and willow trees therefore recovered, providing better habitat for beavers, which grew from one colony to eight [ref]. As it happens there’s a video clip on Facebook about this which is doing the rounds as I write, which argues that the arrival of the wolves there ultimately led even to the rivers becoming more stable: the clip appears to be derived from a talk given by George Monbiot, to which video was added here.

Although I would love to see wolves re-introduced to, say, the Scottish Highlands, I recognise that a predator which lives and hunts in packs is much more contentious than a solitary, elusive, forest cat. While they would undoubtedly help to control the red deer population, they might also find the local sheep a tasty alternative. It would probably be better to re-introduce the lynx first and assess its impact on the environment before beginning to seriously contemplate releasing wolves.

I’d be delighted if pine martens were released into the Forest of Dean – even more so if this was followed by lynxes. There’s a colony of beavers which has mysteriously appeared on the aptly-named River Otter – and I’d certainly be excited if they happened to make their way up to the Somerset Levels! I strongly believe that continuing to re-introduce these species into the wild is the right course of action: we will have a more biodiverse countryside, which will lead to our own lives being enriched by them.

An otterly brilliant trip to Meare Heath

Black-winged stilt with black-tailed godwit at Meare Heath

A few days ago I went on a quick trip to Meare Heath and missed an otter by about 5 seconds. I couldn’t complain too much as I’d just seen a black-winged stilt that was on a one-day stopover before heading elsewhere – but I was still miffed.

This afternoon, after I’d completed my Easter ministerial duties, Jen and I were keen to plan an afternoon that would work both for my mother, and Andrew & Rachael and their kids. That’s how we ended up back at Meare Heath – the kids could wheel their way up and down the track, while I went with Jen and mum to the hide. (Ulterior motives? Surely not!)

We’d just got to the hide when one of the guys there pointed out an otter in the lagoon. I’d had a good sighting of one some months ago, but had not photographed it – so I realised this was my opportunity!

Otter in the lagoon at Meare Heath.

Otter in the lagoon at Meare Heath.

We were able to watch it continuously for about five minutes as it meandered across the shallow waters, hunting for prey. Eventually it caught a huge eel that looked as long as the otter itself.

The otter battling with the eel – though there was little doubt about the eventual winner.

Having won, the otter trots off into the reedbed.

Never having photographed an otter before, this was a wonderful encounter!


Cuthbert and the otters

There’s a story about the Celtic hermit-monk, St Cuthbert, and a pair of otters, which is very endearing – but whose truth, until recently, I doubted. It’s told by Bede, his biographer and near-contemporary.

An icon of Cuthbert praying - with otters in attendance

An icon of Cuthbert praying – with otters in attendance (from Aidan Hart Sacred Icons)

Cuthbert lived as a monk on Lindisfarne in the 7th century, and soon acquired a reputation of great holiness. While visiting another monastic community he was known to slip outside in the middle of the night and return in the morning. A fellow monk wanted to find out what he did, so one night he followed him from a distance. He discovered that Cuthbert waded into the sea up to his neck. When morning came he returned, knelt on the beach, and prayed. While he did so, “two otters bounded out of the water, stretched themselves out before him, warmed his feet with their breath, and tried to dry him with their fur. They finished, received his blessing, and slipped back to their watery home”.

It’s hardly surprising that Cuthbert had a reputation for closeness to nature! But when I frist read the story my thoughts were, “I wish this were true, but really, it’s too far-fetched; it must be pious legend.”

I thought the same about another story of Cuthbert – his association with crows – but that changed because of evidence from an unexpected source.

Cuthbert had sought greater solitude in later life and ended up on Inner Farne, a small, bleak island in the North Sea off the Northumbrian coast. Some ravens that shared the island decided that straw on the visitors’ house would make great nesting material. Cuthbert rebuked them – but they ignored him. So Cuthbert resorted to more drastic words: “In the name of Jesus Christ, depart forthwith!”. At this, the ravens departed.

Bede records what happened next: “Three days later, one of a pair of them returned, and finding Cuthbert digging, stood before him, with feathers outspread and head bowed low to its feet in a sign of grief. Using whatever signs it could to express contrition it very humbly asked pardon. When Cuthbert realised what it meant, he gave permission for them all to return. Back they came with a fitting gift – a lump of pig’s lard. Cuthbert would often show this to his visitors, inviting them to grease their shoes with it”.

Again a lovely story – but again one that my sceptical mind doubted severely.

Until I read a couple of articles on the BBC News website about crows bringing gifts. The one that really struck me was about a crow called Sheryl (geddit?!): “Sheryl brings me gifts. My first was presented to me with her wings splayed open and head bowed. I was very ceremoniously handed a yellow foam dart from a toy gun! She refused to take the dart back as she does when we play games. I felt truly honoured.”

What really struck me about the story is not just the fact that it brought the gift, but the gesture while doing so which evoked Bede’s description of Cuthbert’s raven. I suddenly realised that story had a ring of truth to it: he was accurately describing the bird’s behaviour. Whether the ravens were “repentant” in the way that Bede described is a little less clear- but perhaps the event itself is described accurately.

I wonder whether the same might be said of Cuthbert and the otters? Perhaps they did indeed play around his feet as described – but perhaps with less intention to warm him with their breath and dry him with their fur as the monk described? I’m realising that I may have underestimated the veracity of Bede’s ‘Life of Cuthbert’, which the story of the ravens unexpectedly reveals.

An otter sighting

I may have otters on the brain at the moment. I went for a birding trip last week to the new hide at Catcott Lows which overlooks a small, reed-lined lake. There was hardly a bird in sight, apart from a little egret on the far side and three little grebes in the middle. Then I became aware that there was a form in the water to my left – “What have we here?” I thought, as I saw the unmistakable shape of an otter swimming through. It cruised along, diving gracefully, emerging to swim further on and dive again. I watched it doing this for about five minutes before it disappeared. It was a stunning sighting!

The stories about Cuthbert are from “The Age of Bede”, Penguin (2004), p54 and p71

Notes from a French riverbank

Jen and I have recently returned from a lovely week in France. We were staying in Châtellerault, because Jen’s uncle and aunt, John and HĂ©lène, are looking after HĂ©lène’s mother who lives there. This was a great opportunity to explore a part of France that neither of us had been to before.

On our first full day we were given a tour of the town, which is built on the banks of the Vienne river, a tributary of the Loire, and is about as big as the Severn in Worcester. One of the major features of the town is the Henri IV bridge, built around 1600, during the reign of one of France’s best loved kings: his concern for the well-being of the poorest in the country was epitomised by his determination that every peasant should have a chicken in his pot on Sundays!

The Henry IV bridge crossing the Vienne at Châtellerault

The Henri IV bridge crossing the Vienne at Châtellerault

Any guesses as to what wildlife Vouneuil is best known for?

Any guesses as to what wildlife Vouneuil is best known for?

We went on two walks exploring the region close to the Vienne. On the first of these we departed from Vouneuil-sur-Vienne, which has an eye-catching and unusual emblem on its village sign!

The route took us to the Pinail nature reserve, an area of heathland with a large number of small ponds. The bedrock consists of flint and silicified limestone, so that it was ideal for extracting millstones – leaving behind the many pools. This is one reason why the reserve now hosts 46 species of dragonfly and has rich biodiversity. December was not the best month to go, but it was easy to see that it would be a great place to dwell for a while during spring and early summer.

Two of the ponds at the Pinail nature reserve.

The walk – about 9 miles in all – took us through a wide variety of terrain. Leaving the Pinail, we walked through woodland, along a couple of low hills, and then round to the large village of Bonneuil Matours – where we discovered a great cafe with its own bakery! We later discovered that it’s a favourite of John and HĂ©lène.

Cafe Choquet in Bonneuil Matours

Cafe Choquet in Bonneuil Matours

By the time we left the cafe and walked north back to Vouneuil, it was getting late and we didn’t get great views of the river, which, although it ran close to the road along which we were walking, was still a short distance away. However, we did get a good sight of a flock of bramblings on the edge of the village: rounding off a good day of birding, as I’d also seen a couple of firecrests and a black redstart (each probable rather than definite, though).

On New Year’s day we took another walk, south of Cenon-sur-Vienne back to Vouneuil, and this route kept much closer to the riverbank. Although tke sky was overcast all day we had no rain, so it was great walking weather.

Along the banks of the Vienne

Along the banks of the Vienne

Not far south of Cenon, we found a quiet spot on the riverbank. I was searching for a good scenic photo, when, noiselessly, a mid-sized mammal slipped into the water and swam across the river. I thought at first that it was a beaver, but I discovered later (thanks to the expertise of members of the Mammal Society!) that it was actually a coypu, a species from South America which escaped from European fur farms in the early 20th century.

Coypu near Cenon-sur-Vienne

Coypu near Cenon-sur-Vienne

Both beavers and coypus are known in the Loire valley and its tributaries, but only the latter are seen during the day. Unfortunately for the coypus they have a destructive effect on the landscape and are considered a pest species.

Shortly afterwards we had another extraordinary sight: a train of caterpillars!

Caterpillar train!

Caterpillar train! It turns out this is the Pine Processionary Moth, an invasive species spreading north through France – see here for full story.

The château at Chitré

The château at Chitré, which is quite typical of the region.

Our route this time kept us close to the river for most of the way and enabled us to have some great views. We were lucky enough to see three kingfishers on the walk – the streak of blue flashing past being the giveaway – but unfortunately they were too far away to photograph well. I also saw a flock of cirl buntings – which emphasised the similar-but-different nature of birding in western France. The overcast skies meant that the photographic potential was more limited than it might have been, but it was still an excellent walk which, like the previous one, would be great to repeat in the future.

The river Vienne near Ardentes

The river Vienne near Ardentes

Dolphins, red deer and a pine marten

Badger and pine marten at the Speyside Wildlife hide

Badger and pine marten at the Speyside Wildlife hide

My week in Scotland was unusually good for seeing interesting mammals. This time last year, I’d had a futile time in Argyll hoping to see a pine marten – not having realised how elusive they actually are. Thus, when I realised that there was a wildlife hide near Aviemore run by Speyside Wildlife, I decided that I had to go.

They put out food each evening, but can’t guarantee what will turn up. I joined about 8 others around sunset, and we walked to the hide while it was still light enough to see the way, and then waited. Just as the light faded, a large herd of red deer went past in search of lower pastures for the night.

Some time after it was fully dark, a badger appeared and snuffled along the ground for peanuts. As it did so, a pine marten bounded up and sprang onto the table, and then sat down to consume the meal put out for it.

Unusually, there’s a female kit that has remained from last year’s litter. So far this spring she has been a frequent visitor. Her dad also occasionally visits. They have very different tastes: she likes peanuts and honey, he prefers raisins and peanut butter. It’s curious that such a notoriously elusive species will eat so readily from food put out for it – but that’s part of the mystique of pine martens.

One of the stars of the night wasn’t rare at all and weighed about an ounce – a characterful wood mouse, which hid among the tree roots and would occasionally dash across the grass for a peanut when the badger wasn’t looking!

This wood mouse ended up getting the most attention!

This wood mouse ended up getting the most attention!

The following day I visited Chanonry Point, a sliver of land that sticks into the Moray Firth. It’s the best mainland site for seeing dolphins – especially at this time of year, when they assemble for the salmon run.

Bottlenose dolphin from Chanonry Point in the Moray Firth

Bottlenose dolphin from Chanonry Point in the Moray Firth

Dolphin pursuing salmon at Chanonry Point

Dolphin pursuing salmon at Chanonry Point

It’s quite extraordinary to be on land so close to the dolphins: I watched for about an hour, and they were still pursuing lunch just as avidly. (I did feel a tad sorry for the salmon though: if they survived the dolphins, they had the seals to contend with next!)

On the Thursday I visited the RSPB’s Forsinard Flows site. It’s a magnificently bleak landscape of windswept peat bogs, but I chose the wrong time of day for the bird life! After I finished a late packed lunch, I had a careful look round before continuing – to see a herd of red deer that thought it could slip along the fence line of a forest without being disturbed.

Red deer near Forsinard in Sutherland

Red deer near Forsinard in Sutherland

After they saw I’d spotted them, they slunk behind a hillock, and disappeared for so long that I thought they’d all hurdled the fence. I went a bit closer and found the herd sat in the grass, clearly content to wait until the human departed, with only some rather fine antlers giving them away!

That evening I went back to the Speyside wildlife site. This time there were three badgers that showed exceptionally well – and the pine marten returned and hogged the limelight while it was there!

Two of the badgers showed very well

Two of the badgers showed very well

Pine marten at the Speyside wildlife hide near Aviemore

Pine marten at the Speyside wildlife hide near Aviemore

Dolphins and shipwrecks

Pair of dolphins viewed from the Scillonian

Pair of dolphins viewed from the Scillonian

Dolphin viewed from the Scillonian

Dolphin viewed from the Scillonian

One of the delights of the ferry trip to the Scillies is the chance to see dolphins. I’ve been lucky on both outbound journeys, seeing a large number of them – and even managed to snap a few this time. I used to think that to see cetaceans you had to go to more tropical areas, but the reality is that you can see many species in British coastal waters, if you go to the right places.

Life on the Scillies is critically dependant upon the sea in many ways. They were originally joined to Cornwall, being separated by the rise in sea levels since the Ice Ages – but even in Roman times most of the current archilpelago was part of a single large island (known as En Noer). The main port was in what is now St Martin’s. Today, the island of Gugh is cut off from St Agnes at high tide, while Bryher and Tresco are separated completely, except for a few days when the low spring tides enable people to walk from one to the other. The rising sea levels caused by global warming are not a new phenomenon, but the acceleration of an old one.

Every island has its own unique character: my favourite one is St Agnes. It’s wilder than the larger St Marys (which is like a small rural town), and is Britain’s most south-westerly inhabited island. It is also closest to the most treacherous stretch of water in the world. There have been more shipwrecks off the western rocks (a few miles west of the St Agnes) than anywhere else in the world. The other attraction of the island, like the others, is that it is a genuine working community. By contrast, Lundy at the mouth of the Bristol Channel has a slightly artificial feel, being entirely managed by a heritage group.

Much as I would have liked to have seen more rare birds, it is no hardship to have time to explore the Scillies!

The west coast of St Agnes - a rugged environment!

The west coast of St Agnes – a rugged environment!

Rocks off the coast of St Agnes

Rocks off the coast of St Agnes

Old Town bay, St Mary's

Old Town bay, St Mary’s