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Content Updated: 5th August 2016

SEASONAL UPDATE: August 2016

Dew on country gate

Summer got off to a fine, warm start in the south of Britain last month. Temperatures in parts of the south east climbed into the low 30s Celsius and here in the New Forest overnight temperatures in the high teens and low 20s Celsius put sleep at a premium. In the north of England and Scotland the picture was much more unsettled and, despite some temperatures hitting the high 20s Celsius, rain and fresh conditions were much more the order of the month. Looking ahead, the long range forecasts are suggesting that the start of August will continued unsettled, with the UK receiving a prevailing westerly airflow, bringing bands of showers and fresher air. There is, however, an indication that the Azores high might start showing its hand towards the middle of the month, bringing warm and settled conditions to the country.

As usual the Wildlife Trusts are running a series of nature-themed events aimed at getting people off the sofa (details here), as are the RSPB (details here). Similarly, the Marine Conservation Society are organising a series of beach clean events up and down the country over the next month and are asking for volunteers to spare an hour or so to help out – you can find your local beach clean on their website. There are also some surveys running this month that could really use your help. If you see deer while out and about on your patch, please log the sighting into the British Deer Society’s deer survey. (Please note there is a DNS issue with this website that prevents some people accessing it. If you cannot get on the site, please e-mail me your sighting and I will log it for you.) The wildlife charity Butterfly Conservation’s Big Butterfly Count is running until the end of the month, so there’s still time to count the butterflies in your garden and submit the records. The UK Glowworm Survey is still running, as is the Peoples’ Trust for Endangered Species’ Mammals on the Roads survey, and the PTES are also asking people to submit their sightings of hedgehogs, alive and dead. If all you’re planning this month is a walk in the countryside this month, let’s have a look at what you might expect to find.

Rutting Roe deerMammals: This is a great month to be out and about in your local woods and fields looking for our most widespread native deer species. August represents the pinnacle of the roe deer breeding season, or rut (right). Roe are unique among British deer in that a peculiarity of their reproductive biology allows them to rut earlier than most species. Unlike red, fallow and sika, which rut during the autumn, or the Chinese water deer which ruts in December, the roe rut is mid-July to mid-August, tending to peak early in the month. During the rut, the necks of the males thicken and they start vocalising (barking) more often. Males bark at each other in competition and to attract does. Clashes may occur if a buck trespasses into an occupied territory and males will lock antlers for up to 15 minutes in a clash of surprising ferocity.  As with all deer species, and contrary to popular misconception, the rut is really all about the female – it may seem like the males are calling the shots, but it is actually quite the reverse. The female solicits the buck to chase her, at increasing speed, stopping to encourage him back up if he collapses from exhaustion. This chase may involve running in circles around a tree, bush or stump, leaving a ring of trampled vegetation called a ‘roe ring’. After successful fertilisation (and the doe may mate with several bucks) the embryo undergoes a few weeks of diapause (basically stasis) before it implants in the doe’s uterus and resumes development in November/December. Elsewhere in the deer world, red, fallow and sika will be shedding their velvet or be sporting newly cleaned antlers. The stags and bucks will rub their antlers on the ground, the trunks and branches of trees, fence posts, indeed pretty much anything to help remove the dead and peeling velvet. In the process of ‘cleaning’ the antlers, dirt, sap and tannins are rubbed into the antler, turning it from its initial off-white colour to the rustic brown colour seen during the rut.

There are a lot of small hedgehogs around at this moment and I’ve seen some cracking shots of hoglets out and about in gardens at dusk over the last few days. If at all possible, please leave out a shallow dish of fresh water (particularly during prolonged dry spells) for hedgehogs and other wildlife visiting your garden. Adult females, having recently given birth and under the stress of lactation, are often particularly dehydrated. Any hedgehogs seen out during the daytime (excluding an hour or so either side of dawn/dusk) are likely in need of veterinary attention – see the Caring for Hedgehogs article for further details.

If you’re venturing out to the coast this month, make sure you take binoculars with you; the west coast offers a good chance of seeing cetaceans (whales and dolphins) at this time of year, as well as the odd basking shark. This time of year is also often when people notice lots of dead shrews around, most without any obvious signs of trauma, and question whether some sort of plague has hit the population. Previous authors have suggested a wide range of theories to account for this die-off, including that thunderclaps scare them to death. The actual reason, however, is nothing quite so dramatic; these small mammals are short-lived (averaging 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, it seems) and thus the bodies tend to remain in situ, while those of other small mammals (e.g. mice and voles) are rapidly cleaned up by predators. Indeed, it seems that it’s only really owls that don’t instantly turn their noses up at these insectivores.

Fledgling robinBirds: There are quite a few garden birds around at the moment, particularly recently fledged youngsters, and I’ve come across several juvenile robins (left) and blackbirds in the last few days, almost certainly the representatives of a second brood. The breeding season is over for most birds now, although house martins are late breeders and are likely to still be busy with chicks. Hobbys too are late breeders and may still have dependent young to feed. Indeed, August is generally a good month for bird of prey spotting, with lots of noisy young raptors around. It is also arguably the best month for watching ospreys. Having bred in parts of the UK (notably Scotland and north-east England, but also Cumbria and parts of Wales) ospreys begin their 5,000 kilometre (3,000 mile) migration to the eastern coast of North Africa during August and will often stop off at suitable feeding sites, particularly fish farms and well-stocked lakes, in the south of England to fuel-up in preparation for the journey.

As summer wears on chiffchaffs become more difficult to find as the migrants that bolstered our spring and summer populations, most from the Mediterranean and western Africa, start migrating south towards their wintering grounds, leaving only the resident individuals in southern England come the autumn/winter. Willow warblers can be found this month, and one turned up rather unexpectedly in my parents’ garden in Cornwall last weekend. There are still plenty of wading birds to be found in our estuaries, including oystercatchers and terns, and, although many of the swallows appear to have left now, there are still some swifts screaming in the skies above Hampshire. Yellow wagtails can be found sharing grazing pastures with cattle this month, and August is a great time to watch for kingfishers on your local river.

Reptiles and amphibians: The breeding season is over for most of our native amphibians, but some natterjack toads may still be going. Unfortunately, despite originally being fairly common in England, they’re now restricted to about 60 sites in Britain: coastal sand dune systems, coastal grazing marshes and sandy heathlands. Elsewhere, long grass in parks, woodlands, dunes and even gardens are likely to harbour tiny frogs and/or toads. Indeed, many people are surprised to find frogs in their garden if they don’t have a pond, but frogs and toads spend most of their lives on land, sheltering in leaf litter and under logs and hunting for invertebrates.

During very warm periods reptile spotting can be tough, with snakes in particular being difficult to find. All reptiles are exothermic, which means they gain the majority of the heat they need from their environment, typically by basking in the sunshine. This works in the favour of reptile spotters during the spring and autumn, when snakes and lizards typically have to bask for long periods to get warm. Reptiles are, however, prone to overheating (they can’t sweat like you or I can to cool off) and they must find shade as the weather heats up. So, in the summer they tend to be more difficult to find as they’re seeking shelter deep in the undergrowth, trying to cool down. The warm nights also mean that activity can essentially happen through the 24 hour cycle (in the spring and autumn it’s generally too cold to hunt at night) making their movements less predictable. That said, hot August days are good for checking ponds and streams for swimming grass snakes and lizards are still likely to be out and about, apparently more tolerant of hot sunshine than most snakes (perhaps because their smaller size allows them to cool more quickly).

Invertebrates: There are plenty of butterflies around at the moment, although the wet and windy start to August is likely to have suppressed their activity somewhat. Last weekend, my Big Butterfly Count in Cornwall yielded peacock, red admiral, large white, gatekeeper, speckled wood, meadow brown, ringlet and small tortoiseshell butterflies out enjoying the sunshine. Other Lepidoptera on the wing this month, weather permitting, include green marble, skipper, blue, silver-washed fritillaries and small copper butterflies, as well as six-spot burnet and red underwing moths. Streams and ditches will still have some dragonflies and damselflies mating and laying eggs, and I have seen several hawker dragonflies while out walking in the New Forest over the last week or two. The glowworm season is coming to an end, but there should still be a few around, glowing in a last ditch attempt to attract a mate.

Bee on Hebe flowerBees are very active now, busily gathering pollen to see them through the cooler autumn and winter ahead. The hebe in my parents’ garden was covered in a variety of bee species last weekend. Britain is home to 22 species of bumblebee and there is one in particular that the Bees, Wasps and Ants Recording Society (BWARS) want to hear about: the tree bumblebee, with its reddish thorax and black abdomen. If you find any tree bumblebees this month, please take a moment to log the sighting on the BWARS website. Assuming the sun comes back out, August is also a good month to look for hoverflies.

Rapidly growing garden spiders are all over the garden at the moment, having dispersed from their ‘spiderling ball’ in June or July and setup webs in the vegetation nearby. There are also lots of wolf spiders around. Wolf spiders are particularly interesting, because the mother carries her newly-hatched offspring around on her abdomen for a week or so after they hatch, protecting them from predators. These arachnids are pretty small, however, so you need to look closely to see the babies. On the subject of spiders, August is a good month to look for young raft spiders on the wetlands of southern England and Wales; juvenile raft spiders are a striking yellow colour at the moment, making them a little easier to spot. Even more striking is the yellow and black wasp spider, which is at its most obvious this month too. Wasp spiders spent most of their lives low in the vegetation hunting for food, but August is the main breeding season for these arachnids, and the females climb up and establish webs in tall grass and gorse where they sit and await a passing male.

Plants and fungi: There is a distinct hint of pink in the countryside during August, with thistles and thyme being more colourful and fragrant than many credit. Fruit is also starting to ripen now with blackberries, plums and rowan berries well on their way to being edible here in southern England. This fruit feast will attract a range of birds and insects over the coming weeks and an hour spent sitting in a fruit orchard, or even just under a fruit tree in your garden, is bound to reward. Careful searching of drystone walls this month may reveal the delicate pink flowers of the ivy-leaved toadflax, the grey woolly cotton moss, and the tubular yellow flowers of yellow cordylis.

Fungi-wise, August is the month of the edible bolete; oak bolete, penny buns and peppery bolete are fruiting this month. Despite their name, winter chanterelles can be found growing on moss and rotten logs in mixed and conifer woodland now. Shaggy inkcaps, beefsteak fungus and hedgehog fungus are also starting their fruiting season this month.

Pick of the Month – Natural World Discoveries

Hedgehogs sharing nest boxHedgehog house-share
When you browse through the hedgehog literature, one of the common behavioural observations that stands out is that most authors consider hedgehogs to be pretty antisocial animals. They don’t actively defend a territory – unlike mammals such as foxes, badgers and shrews, which will scent mark their home turf and kick out interlopers – preferring instead to just avoid one another. Another thing that appeared to be fairly well agreed upon in the mainstream literature was that hedgehogs built a nest for themselves and weren’t at home to guests. There are records of hedgehogs building multiple nests over a season and moving around, with old nests being occupied by other hedgehogs and even two hedgehogs using the same nest, but at different times. Reports of simultaneous nest sharing in European hedgehogs are rare, with only two reports, both during the winter (one in Russia in the 1920s and one of two hedgehogs sharing a double-chambered nest in London’s Bushy Park during the 1960s), making it into the literature. Hedgehog carers have known for a while, however, that nest sharing does happen and Happy Hedgehog Rescue’s Jayne Morgan told me how she opened one of her hedgehog houses to find four hogs curled up together. Recently, a tracking study in New Zealand found evidence for summer nest sharing in wild hedgehogs.

In a short paper to Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment earlier this year, University of Otago biologist Mariano Recio described her research on the movements of hedgehogs in the eastern margin of the Godley Valley, in the Mackenzie Basin of New Zealand’s South Island. Twenty-seven hedgehogs were fitted with GPS tags and followed around the study site during the summer and autumn of 2009. Recio found two cases (about 8%) of nest sharing during the summer tracking. In one case, two adult males were found sleeping in a nest under a dense patch of shrub, spines touching. The second finding was more interesting: two adult males were found sharing a nest with an adult female and her three hoglets, all in contact. Recio suggests that the lack of any major predators and good food supply in New Zealand may have changed how tolerant antipodean hedgehogs are of each other. Nonetheless, these data coupled with observations of hedgehogs sharing ‘hedgehog houses’ here in the UK suggest nest sharing in wild hedgehogs may be more common than previously thought.

Reference: Recio, M.R. (2016). Crowded house: nest sharing among solitary European hedgehogs in New Zealand. Front. Ecol. Env. 14(4): 225-226.

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Tree bark stripped by squirrelCalcium-deprived squirrels strip bark
Squirrels have long been considered a pest to forestry in the UK. Prior to the introduction of grey squirrels (Sciurus carolinensis) to the UK and their subsequent establishment and expansion across the country, our native red squirrels (Sciurus vulgaris) were shot by foresters because of their potential to damage trees. Currently, of the two species, it is the grey that poses the most significant risk to forestry in the UK, being most abundant and widespread. Of particular concern is the grey squirrel’s penchant for stripping bark (right) from trees. Removal of the bark leaves the tree open to damage and infection. It also impairs the tree’s ability to transport food. Tree bark, more technically known as phloem (pronounced flow-em), is the tissue in which sugars are transported around the tree. As such, one particular tendency that squirrels show to remove a ring of bark around the base of a branch can result in the branch’s food supply being cut off and the whole branch dying and eventually falling off. In 2013 it was estimated that squirrels caused about £10 million worth of damage to the UK’s forestry industry each year.

The bark stripping behaviour is well known among squirrels, but poorly understood. In other words, we know when, where and what tree species they’re likely to strip bark from, but we don’t know why they do it. Over the years, many theories have been proposed – including that they strip bark to eat or use as nesting material, an outlet for aggressive behaviour, a source of water, and as something on which to grind their teeth – but have generally been considered unlikely explanations. One theory that has recently gained support is the idea that squirrels strip bark because they’re lacking in some essential nutrients, specifically calcium. In a recent paper to the journal Forest Ecology and Management, a team at the Royal Veterinary College investigated the idea that squirrels may strip bark to get at the calcium contained within the phloem. The team, led by Chris Nichols at the RVC, reviewed the literature on bark stripping in light of particular phases of the grey squirrel’s reproductive cycle and the minerals contained both in the phloem and other food sources during different seasons. They found that the peak period of bark stripping, May to July, coincides with newly-weaned squirrel kittens gaining their independence. These young squirrels are undergoing their main period of bone growth, while the adult females are recovering from the bodily calcium drain caused by lactation. Furthermore, during these months the trees themselves are growing (the amount of calcium in the phloem during spring/summer can be 40% greater than that present during winter) and the tree species favoured for de-barking, oak and beech, both have a high percentage of calcium and exceptionally high calcium to phosphate ratio.

It has long been known that squirrels will gnaw at limestone rocks and other calcium-rich objects, such as skulls and deer antlers, and calcium-seeking behaviour during and after lactation is well documented in other mammals such as rats. Indeed, in lab rats we know that the calcium content of their bones declines by up to a third during peak lactation. The squirrels’ normal food is relatively low in calcium; a hazel nut, for example, contains about 0.1% calcium, whereas oak bark contains almost 3%, so thirty times more. Nichols and his colleagues also noted how trees vary in their calcium levels, both within and between individual trees, with branches often having higher concentrations than the trunk – this might explain why some trees are more vulnerable to de-barking than others, and why branches tend to be afflicted most frequently. More work needs to be done, particularly looking at whether the form that calcium takes in tree bark, the inert compound calcium oxalate, can be absorbed by squirrels, but this review lends considerable support to the so-called ‘Calcium Hypothesis’ as an explanation for bark stripping behaviour in squirrels.

Reference: Nichols, C.P. et al. (2016). A novel causal mechanism for grey squirrels bark stripping: The Calcium Hypothesis. Forest Ecol. Man. 367: 12-20.

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Spoil heap at badger settBadgers boost bryophytes
As they go about their daily lives, the activities of many organisms can have a profound impact on the local environment. Badgers, in particular, are significant ecosystem engineers in that they move a substantial amount of soil during the excavation of their setts (left). In areas where forests are heavily managed for timber production, the kind of disturbances that many plant species need to gain a foothold in the area are eliminated. It has recently been suggested that badger digging activities could provide that disturbance and thus help shape plant communities in these timber stands.

In a recent paper to the journal Forest Ecology and Management, Polish Academy of Sciences botanists Pzemyslaw Kurek and Beata Cykowska-Marzencka present their study of the bryophytes found around badger setts in the Kampinos Forest, one of the largest and best-preserved lowland forest complexes in central Poland. Bryophytes are the mosses, liverworts and hornworts that we often associate with woodland and drystone walls. They’ve been around for the last 400 million years, making them the oldest land plant group on Earth, and they play a vital role in the ecosystem, being among the first to colonise bare and disturbed ground, allowing other plants to become established. The botanists identified 55 bryophyte species during their survey, 49 of which were found in and around badger setts. Of these 49 species, just over half (26) were found only on badger setts. Badger setts were also found to be home to a greater diversity of bryophytes than any of the reference (badger-free) plots. Epiphytic species (i.e. those that grow on other plant species, moss growing on the bark of a tree for example) were considerably abundant around setts, with 14 species found growing around setts and only three species found growing away from them.

Now, for these epiphytic bryophytes to be found around the badger setts, the species of fleshy-fruited trees and shrubs on which these epiphytic bryophytes grow, particularly pear and dogwood in this study area, must also be more abundant around badger setts than away from them. Indeed, Kurek and Cykowska-Marzencka conclude that topsoil disturbance by the badgers digging creates niches suitable for the establishment of a variety of vascular and bryophyte plant species, making badgers an important force in increasing diversity in managed forests.

Reference: Kurek, P. and Cykowska-Marzencka, B. (2016). Badger Meles meles setts and bryophyte diversity: A newly found role for the game animal in European temperate forests. Forest Ecol. Man. 372: 199-205.

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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. Finally, thanks to Dominic Regan and Cathy Nunns for letting me use their excellent photos this month.

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WildlifeonlineOkay, for those of you that are new to the site, let's take it from the top!

What is Wildlife Online?
Essentially, WLOL is an educational website about British wildlife. The site contains profiles of various British animal species, with new articles in preparation all the time. The site also has articles looking at wildlife-related subjects, including hunting and animal emotions. This site is purely a hobby of mine; it does not generate any money or contain any advertising and, for the time being at least, I am happy for it to stay that way.

What does Wildlife Online aim to achieve?
The ultimate goal of the website is to be useful. My intention has always been to provide un-biased, accurate information that’s accessible to anyone with an Internet connection. Increasingly people are coming into contact with their local wildlife and whether such interactions are positive or negative, they generally inspire a desire to learn more about the species. Moreover, there are still a great many misconceptions surrounding our wildlife (fox behaviour springs immediately to mind) and these are brought up time and time again during discussions in the media. Each article aims to provide a reasonably comprehensive overview of the species in question by drawing on information from the media, books, TV programmes and the scientific literature. I feel that this combination of sources, along with my own observations and those of my friends/colleagues/readers provides a unique online resource of British wildlife information. My hope is that the information provided here will go some way to changing people's perceptions of the creatures with which they share their parks and gardens.

Why create a website when there are books and TV programmes about your subjects?
Books can be a fantastic resource and I can't imagine being without my library. Not all libraries are, however, equally well stocked, and not everyone has the funds to splash out on what are often very expensive wildlife books (especially those written by scientists). More importantly, much of the scientific research never makes it out of the journals into books and TV shows. Similarly, many of the early books -- which contain some of the pioneering work on the species -- are now long out of print and can be difficult or expensive to track down. Books have the 'luxury' of being able to devote their entire contents to a particular species, covering all aspects of its life history. Television, by contrast, is a much more limited and variable medium: the programme editor(s) has to create a show that is likely to hold the viewers' attention and appeal to a very wide audience. The result is that, although some reach this compromise very well, many documentaries focus heavily on the 'wow factor' (multitudinous slow motion shots of Great whites leaping out of the water in pursuit of seals, for example) and this often comes at the inevitable expense of the information about the animal. Finally, both books and TV programmes go out of date quite quickly; new research is being conducted all the time. Consequently, a website is an ideal and dynamic intermediate - it offers the opportunity to provide a decent amount of information about the subject that can be updated at the metaphorical drop-of-a-hat as any new research is published.

Why include so much information?
I honestly believe that if a job is worth doing, it's worth doing well. There are hundreds of websites with brief species profiles and if that's all WLOL offered there would be little point to it. I understand and appreciate that some people find being confronted with large volumes of text very daunting while others are of the 'too long; didn't read' mind-set and will thus be turned off by the amount of text facing them. I have tried to remedy this as far as possible via two avenues: there is a Speed Read section with a brief profile of each species featured in a main article; and each article has been 'virtually split', with the aid of hyperlinks, into sections that allow people to easily jump to the information they're looking for. Ultimately, I want to provide as much information as is feasible in order to provide the reader with the clearest appraisal of each species or topic; I hope that most readers approve of this approach.

Why haven't you included a complete bibliography?
My intention with WLOL is to provide the information in an accessible format, which means that anyone should be able to read an article and understand the information in it. Consequently, I didn't want to format it as a scientific paper because the current format allows for a much more informal approach and writing style which, I hope, will appeal to a wider audience. Most people should find enough information in the article (I typically provide the name or one or more of the authors and the journal and year) to track down the original scientific paper. When I take information from books, I always give the name of the author(s) and the full title of the book for easy reference. I am also happy to provide full details of any of the references upon request.

Are you really qualified to do this?
I'm certainly not an expert on any of the subjects presented on this site. The articles stem from my varied interests in natural history and biological sciences. In terms of qualifications, I trained as a scientist (studying natural sciences at degree and postgraduate level) and all I really do is interpret information, blend it with associated research and personal observation, and present it in what I hope is an accessible format. Unless specifically stated, I do not claim any of the information on this site to be my own research. I have built relationships with some of the many diligent researchers who have produced the data that I use, and I am happy either to recommend an expert or provide my own opinions on a subject.

As a final note, I want to make a quick reference to the quality of the material on the site. The great French philosopher and mathematician, Rene Descartes, once said: "If you would be a real seeker of truth, you first must be willing to doubt as far as possible all things." This is very sage advice, especially when it comes to believing what you read on the Internet. Most Internet sites (indeed, some books and TV shows too), including this one, have no form of peer-review (i.e. nobody with experience of the topic checks the site for accuracy); consequently pretty much anyone can have their own little corner of cyberspace and information can make it onto websites that is either misguided, or downright false! When creating material for this site I take every care to ensure that the information I present is accurate. Invariably errors will creep in; typos are almost inevitable (although each article goes through several levels of proof reading before it appears online) and research is always underway on the species featured here, so the data can go out of date almost overnight. Each page has regular (ish!) reviews, however, during which I update the information, adding details of new findings and taking out that which is now thought highly unlikely. You can see most of the books I have used in the preparation of this site on the Recommended Reading page and I have provided links to some of the most interesting sites I came across during my research – these can be found under the appropriate sub-heading on the Links page.

Anyway, I digress.... I hope you enjoy looking around the site and I hope equally that you get something worthwhile out of it. Any comments, suggestions or (constructive) criticisms are welcome via e-mail - appropriate addresses can be found on the Contact page.

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DISCLAIMER: All the photographs and artwork on this site are either my own work or have been donated by readers. All images remain property of their authors and, if you wish to reproduce any of the pictures, consent must be granted by the appropriate person - requests can be directed via myself or see FAQ. For more details on the content of this site, please see the full WLOL Disclaimer.

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