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Content Updated: 2nd March 2018


Snow in Southampton

Last month, the Met Office released their stats for January, showing that, on average, temperatures were about 0.5C above the seasonal average, despite some periods of ice and snow across much of mid- and northern Britain. This wasn’t uniform across the country, however. The maximum and minimum temperatures were between 1 and 1.5C (~2F) above average over much of southern England, but 0.5-1C below in northern Scotland. Scotland was also very dry, with below average rainfall, while Northern Ireland saw almost 50% more rainfall than expected for January. Monks Wood in Cambridgeshire saw the highest January temperature of 15.1C (59F), while Altnaharra and Kinbrace in Sutherland saw the lowest at -13.7C (7F).

February continued along the unsettled theme, with periods of wet and very windy weather punctuated by cold and frosty conditions across the country. Several low pressure systems crossed the UK last month, bringing wind gusts from 40 to 70 mph. The last week of the month was spent in an easterly airflow, bringing cold dry air from Siberia and causing daytime temperatures to hover  around or just below 0C (32F) and nighttime temperatures well below freezing - this combination of a reverse in the jet stream and a significant storm (named "Emma") bringing moisture up from the Atlantic resulted in some unprecidented March weather on the first day of the month. Dubbed by the media "the beast from the east", pretty much every part of the UK experienced significant snowfall and we had four inches here in Southampton, which is remarkable. At the time of writing, this “blocked synoptic set-up” seems to have retracted earlier than initially forecasted, so the first full week of March will see some mild and wet weather, but temperatures back to the seasonal average.

If you want to brave whatever the weather throws at you 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 this month and live near the coast, Surfers Against Sewage are looking for people to organise cleans of their local beaches – details here. The Forest Commission are running a series of events this month (full list here).

Four-week-old fox cubsMammals: We are now around the zenith for fox births in the UK, with most vixens giving birth in the first half of this month. Indeed, some wildlife rescue charities have already started receiving their first rescued fox cubs of the year. For the first couple of days, the vixen won’t leave the cubs, particularly if it’s very cold, and she’s dependent upon her mate to bring her food. Once the cubs are a few days old, the vixen will leave for brief periods to drink and sometimes hunt. It’ll be another four or five weeks before the cubs appear above ground, initially playing close to the earth before exploring further afield. If you have foxes visiting your garden or find them while out and about, the swollen teats of nursing vixens are usually plainly visible. If the vixen has a mate, he will hunt for her and the cubs and this is often a good time to see foxes out during the daytime. In areas where foxes live in extended family groups (particularly in some large cities), these individuals may also help out by hunting for the vixen and her cubs, babysitting and even wet nursing the cubs. Interestingly, this isn’t universally the case and family members don’t always lend a hand.

Foxes aren’t the only ones with cubs this month. Many badger sows give birth during February and March, although badger cubs remain underground for longer than fox cubs and won’t be seen around the sett for another six to eight weeks. Badgers don’t store food, nor do clan members bring food back to nursing sows, so the new mother is forced to leave her cubs to forage.

Roe bucks are in the final stage of antler development at the moment and will shed their velvet in the next few weeks, while red and fallow deer will start to lose their antlers now. If you’re interested in learning more about what antlers are, how they grow and what their purpose is, check out my Q/A. Hedgehogs are also out and about now and, if you have a hedgehog feeder in your garden, now is the time to make sure it’s cleaned out and re-stocked. Typically, males rouse from hibernation first and go on a quest for food and water to begin replacing the fat reserves lost during hibernation – leaving some food and fresh water out in your garden overnight can be a genuine life-saver for these spiky mammals. Brown hares are getting amorous now and many of our small mammals are also active. Check river banks and canal sides too this month, as water voles are starting to resume activity, having spent most of the winter largely restricted to their burrow system.

Birds: There is a lot of activity among the garden birds in March, with many species courting and nesting. Robins are particularly aggressive at this time of year as they pair up, and will chase most other similarly sized birds away, red breasted or not. Long-tailed tits are busy now too, and many will be raising their first brood; garden fat feeders are a good refuelling point for these busy little “flying teaspoons”. Our garden blackbirds are starting to sing their spring/summer song, treaclier in nature than their autumn/winter tune and giving a real sense that spring has arrived. With the winter migrants having largely gone, we start to see some of our spring visitors arriving, including wheatears, chiffchaffs and hobbies. There are also an increasing number of lapwings to be found, while some of the huge winter murmurations of starlings are starting to break up. Some species, such as grey plovers and curlew, are likely to be found on estuaries this month as they stop off on their way to their summer breeding grounds.

If you’re out in the woods this month, keep an ear open for the drumming of woodpeckers; all three species (greater, lesser and green) make their presence known at this time of year as they establish territories and start breeding. The tawny owls are also in fine voice this month and, finding myself unable to sleep while staying with my parents in rural Cornwall at the end of last month, I had the pleasure of lying in the dark listening to the keewick-ing and hoo-hooo-ing of a pair. A walk around the country lanes on that same weekend also turned up displaying buzzards and nesting rooks.

March adderMuch further north, March heralds the peak of the breeding season of the black grouse in north Wales, northern England and the Highlands of Scotland, with spectacular displays and fights among the male birds as they vie for the attentions of the females. More ubiquitous but equally enthralling to watch is the courtship behaviour of the great crested grebe, which is happening on ponds, lakes and reservoirs across the country this month. The crescendo of this ritual involves the birds separating before each dives and resurfaces with a beak full of weed. They then charge at one another, standing up in the water to face each other at the last minute (splashing water everywhere as they kick to stay afloat) and turning their heads in opposite directions, shaking the weed.

Reptiles and amphibians: We had three large clumps of frogspawn deposited in our pond last month. With the severe cold spell at the end of February we scooped out the spawn and put it in a bucket in our conservatory to protect it from the frost, but I suspect a lot of spawn was killed off by the cold. That said, typically it is only the top layer of eggs that are frozen and killed, with those below the ice level being relatively more insulated and more likely to survive. Prolonged cold weather in the spring can, however, result in slower than normal development of the spawn.

Many adders (left) will be out of their hibernacula by now, although those in the south of the UK appear to emerge later than those in the north. Males also emerge earlier than females, to get a head start on sperm production so they’re ready for the females’ arrival. Males overwinter in groups and will often spend the first week or two after emerging from hibernation basking around the hibernacula before dispersing to search for mates and food. Grass snakes will also be active now, as will our lizards.  Good basking spots can be difficult to come by at this time of year, so if you disturb a snake out basking, it’s worth retreating and waiting as they will often return to the basking spot once danger has passed – within about 20 minutes, in my experience.

Invertebrates: Even in the chilly weather on the last weekend of February, there was some bee and butterfly activity to be seen in the garden. Keep an eye out for the furry “ginger bee” darting over flowers in sunlit woodlands, parks and gardens – these are greater bee-flies and, in our garden, they are particularly fond of forget-me-nots. I have also seen a few caterpillars around and some to keep an eye out for this month are the stick-like swallow-tailed moth on hawthorn, ivy, privet and other shrubs, the striking yellow and black spotted six-spot burnet moth in open grassland, wide verges and waste ground feeding on bird’s-foot trefoil, and, toward the end of the month, the blue-grey and orange caterpillars of the lackey moth, which are widespread in the south of England and hang out in webs spun in hedgerows.

The spiders in and around the house and garden seem to have started to resume their activity and there were plenty of wolf spiders out last weekend. Hoverflies are also a more common sight now, as are shield bugs and ladybirds.

Plants and fungi: Walking the lanes in Cornwall last weekend revealed a few daffodils flowering in sheltered spots, large swathes of snowdrop (some now past their best), some primroses, small clumps of campion and even crocuses adding a splash of colour to the verges. Many trees are also now in bud and there are plenty of catkins to be found.

Streams and ditches are good places to look for newly emerged butterbur flowers, with their striking purple flowers arranged in pyramidal fashion. Old stone walls offer a great opportunity to look for delicate ferns and mosses, while the first sweet violet and lesser celandine are now flowering, adding a dash of purple and shining yellow, respectively, to our woodlands.

Discoveries of the Month

Roadkill suggests badgers impact hedgehog distribution
European hedgehogWe’ve known for several years now that hedgehogs and badgers often do not make good neighbours. Given the right densities in the right kind of habitat, the two species appear able to coexist, while under other circumstances badgers are a significant predator of hedgehogs. There’s some indication that foxes may also have an impact, although the data is far less compelling. Monitoring mammal populations is, however, a difficult and complicated task, which makes assessing any “real term” declines very challenging. One method available involves looking at the number of a particular species killed on the road network. Assuming species don’t become more road savvy over time, more animals tend to be run over in high density populations than low density ones.

The Mammals on the Roads survey, run by the People’s Trust for Endangered Species, has been collecting data on the instances of mammals run over on single carriageway roads in rural areas across the UK since 2001. The data set even extends to cover some urban areas, despite people being specifically asked not to submit records from towns and cities. A subset of this data, collected over the ten years between 2001 and 2011, was recently used by a team of biologists at the University of Oxford to assess how the number of carnivores killed on the roads affected the number of hedgehog road casualties.

In a paper to the journal Mammal Review in January, Carly Pettett and colleagues present their trend analysis of the distribution of foxes, badgers and hedgehogs killed on British roads. Hedgehogs were most abundant in the north and east of England and in Scotland, regions in which badger populations are low. At the smaller scale (10km grid squares), both foxes and badgers were negatively associated with hedgehog abundance. In other words, where foxes and badgers were common roadkill, hedgehogs were rare and vice versa. Looking at the country-wide scale, however, this trend only held for badgers. Indeed, at the larger scale, foxes were positively associated with hedgehog abundance, while badgers were negatively correlated. The researchers suggest that, for foxes, the country-wide association with hedgehogs may reflect similar foraging preferences.

Interestingly, the negative association between badgers and hedgehogs was stronger in 2011 than in 2001. The authors speculate that this change in impact may be associated with the increase in the British badger population over the last 30 years. The biologists conclude:

We found that predator presence may be one of the key drivers of hedgehog distribution, and that changes in predator numbers may be related to hedgehog declines nationally. The mechanism behind the relationship between hedgehogs and badgers and foxes merits further investigation, particularly with respect to habitat and food availability.”

Reference: Pettett, C.E. et al. (2018). National predictors of hedgehog Erinaceus europaeus distribution and decline in Britain. Mamm. Rev. 48(1): 1-6.


European badgerOf badgers and bumblebees
Most of us are familiar with the plight of bumblebees throughout Europe and, in recent years, there has been a big drive by wildlife conservation charities to plant bee-friendly species in our gardens. On a wider scale, the benefits of sowing field margins with wildflower seeds to promote pollinating insects, such as bees, is well known. Bumblebee populations are difficult to monitor, though, and part of the issue is that their nests are very difficult to locate. Consequently, we have very little data on the rates of nest loss, particularly from predation. This is important because with all eusocial bees, a nest represents a single female. Hence, nest survival therefore has a significant impact on whether populations rise or fall.

Many species will eat bees, including a variety of other invertebrates, birds, reptiles, and mammals such as mice, voles, hedgehogs and badgers. Indeed, badgers have long been known to dig out and eat bee nests and, in his 1898 monograph, Alfred Pease considered that “The badger has a special weakness for wild honey, and the grubs of wasps and humble bees.” Recently, Dave Goulson at the University of Sussex, in collaboration with University of Stirling researchers Steph O’Connor and Kirsty Park, used trained bumblebee nest detection dogs to locate nests for study. In all, the dogs and human volunteers located 908 bumblebee nests, the fates of which were recorded between 2008 and 2013. The results of this analysis were published in the journal Animal Conservation last month.

Most of the nests were in rural locations around Stirling in central Scotland and, once located, they were visited at least once a fortnight and observed for 20–30 min on each occasion. Complete or partial destruction of nests was recorded in 100 cases. Twenty-six nests succumbed to human disturbance, mainly gardening and construction projects, while seven were lost to flooding during periods of heavy rain, and four were attacked by ants. The single largest cause of nest failure was destruction when the nests were excavated by “large animals” that the researchers considered were probably badgers based on the degree of damage and the claw/tooth marks in the ground and surrounding vegetation. Assuming badgers were the culprit – although they were only observed to be the predator in one case – they accounted for the loss of 50 nests during this five year period. Most predation took place during June and July, when nests were large. Excavation of 50 nests sounds like a lot and may have impacts locally, but in the scheme of the study, only 11% of the nests were lost. Badgers were considered responsible for half of all nest losses, but this still accounted for the fate of only 5.5% of nests in this study.

Reference: Goulson, D. et al. (2018). Causes of colony mortality in bumblebees. Anim. Cons. 21(1): 45-53.


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


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.


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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