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Content Updated: 3rd May 2018

SEASONAL UPDATE: May 2018

Primroses and forget-me-nots

As we enter the final month of meteorological spring, it has felt like the season has only just gotten started. After a cold and, for many parts of the UK, snowy March, April began on a wet and windy note before offering a week or so of glorious sunshine. Indeed, temperatures in parts of the south-east reached the mid-20s Celsius, well above the seasonal average, and made for the warmest London Marathon on record with temperatures hitting 24C (74F). Even in Scotland, temperatures reached the mid-teens Celsius and, overall for the UK, 2018 was the warmest spring for 70 years. As last month drew to a close, however, a change in the jet stream’s position, pushing further south, caused temperatures to drop back down to around the seasonal average, even below for a couple of days right at the end of the month, with more outbreaks of rain and strong winds.

Currently, a dipping of the jet stream in the north Atlantic is forecast to result in “trough disruption” which means an area of low pressure is likely to form over southern Europe, bringing cooler air over the UK for the start of May. If that happens, it’s the south that’s likely to see some rain, while high pressure will keep things settled over northern England and Scotland.

If you want to get out and do something positive for the start of spring, 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 Forestry Commission are running a series of events this month (full list here).

Badger cubMammals: May is the month in which badger cubs start venturing above ground and they can be found playing close to the sett. Similarly, foxes are very active at this time of year – the adults are busy trying to find food for the cubs and are more likely to be seen out hunting during the daytime. Fox cubs grow quickly and, as they grow, they hone their hunting skills by play-fighting with their littermates. These games can be so absorbing that the young foxes will sometimes come within a few feet of a quiet observer. There are also young stoats and weasels to be found this month, sometimes seen travelling in family groups. Their dancing play is mesmerising to watch and it has been suggested that they use this to “hypnotise” rabbits, allowing them to get within striking distance.

Despite the cold start to spring, hedgehogs are now out of hibernation and, as the nights begin to warm up, their breeding season will get underway. Sit out after dark on a mild night and you may hear the hogs conducting their courtship, with sharp huffing noises emanating from the garden as amorous males try to win over choosy females. Hedgehogs gestate for about a month, so the first litters usually start appearing towards the end of June. If you’re gardening over the next few weeks, please take a minute to check long grass for sleeping hedgehogs before mowing or strimming.

Late May is also when deer begin giving birth to their kids, calves and fawns, depending on species. In my experience, roe are the first to drop their kids, with red and sika calves and fallow fawns following shortly afterwards. Chinese water deer, again in my experience, tend to be later, dropping their fawns in late June or early July. Muntjac can breed throughout the year. In the event that you come across a baby deer lying in the vegetation, please do not touch it. It is perfectly normal for mothers to leave their young hiding among tall grass and bracken during the first couple of weeks after birth, and it is very rare for a mother to abandon her offspring. Every year many deer fawns are taken into wildlife rescue centres by well-meaning but uninformed members of the public who think the youngsters are in need of help. Intervene if the deer is injured, but otherwise do not touch the fawn and just leave it where you found it; its mother will be nearby.

If there was a lot of squirrel activity in your local park at the start of the year it’s a fair bet that there will be squirrel kittens around soon, as winter mating typically leads to kittens born in late April or early May. Underground, the mole breeding season is coming to an end, with most females having already given birth, although the young won’t be seen above ground for another month or so. Many brown hares will have had their first litter by now – females average three litters per year during a breeding season running from February to October.

Birds: I heard my first cuckoo of the year, a female, while walking around Aira Force in the Lake District during the middle of last month. Indeed, May is a good month for listening to birds as well as watching them, with the chirruping whistle of the nightingale, the bubbling churr of the nightjar, and the treacly spring song of the blackbird to lift your spirits. White throats are busy singing away on gorse and heathland here in the south, as are Dartford warblers. Plenty of song from robins, dunnocks, wrens and chiffchaffs too. Tawny owlets can be found branching now, while most other owl species will be feeding nest-bound chicks, making May a good month for owl-spotting in general. Unfortunately, wet and windy conditions over the winter may have taken a heavy toll on our owls, and the Barn Owl Trust are interested in hearing from you if you’ve seen owls of any species this spring. Their website has a comprehensive identification guide followed by an online form that you can use to quickly and easily record your sighting. Their site also has a good guide on what to do if you find an owl out of the nest. Please remember that tawny owlets are very precocious and will branch at a young age, so just being out of the nest is not necessarily an issue.

Blackbird with food.

Based on the photos on my Facebook newsfeed over the past few days, many garden birds have already produced their first litter. I’ve seen photos of recently-fledged blackbirds and there are lots of robins darting around with beaks full of worms suggesting they’re feeding chicks. There are a few goslings and ducklings to be found now, and great crested grebes will either be in the final stages of incubation or carrying their humbug-striped chicks around on their backs, so keep an eye out if you visit your local lake or pond. Most people will have noticed that swifts, martins and swallows are now back in the UK; we saw some swallows in Scotland last month, but have yet to hear any swifts over the house. Swallows in particular have a rich legend in Britain. In spring our ponds and pools are alive with swallows gathering mud for their nests. As they collect mud they leave small puts on the bank of the pond and this is probably the source of early theories that swallows and martins hibernated in muddy burrows around ponds. The mystery of where these birds go in winter wasn’t solved until a swallow chick from a nest on his Staffordshire porch that John Masefield ringed in May 1911 was caught by chance in a net on a Roodeyand, South Africa farm, some 6,000 miles away, in December 1912.

Here in the New Forest the chiffchaffs, redstarts and tree pipits have arrived, while we’ve yet to receive any substantial numbers of blackcaps, willow and wood warblers. Other species around during May include stonechats, skylarks, hobbys, winchats, lapwings, geese, turnstones, and spotted flycatchers.

Reptiles and amphibians: All our reptile and amphibian species are active during this month. Frogs and toads have finished breeding now, with most spawn having hatched. Here on the south coast, the tadpoles in our pond are growing fast. If you have tadpoles in your pond, keep an eye out for them starting to develop back legs (the buds for which appear before those for their arms); this signals a sharp increase in protein requirement and their diet switches to a meat-based one. Newts may still be spawning and this is easiest to watch at night with the aid of a torch.

While the breeding season has come to a close for our amphibians, things are just getting started among our reptiles. A male adder’s priority upon coming out of hibernation is to produce sperm in readiness for the emergence of the females later in the spring – hence he’s spent the past two months basking, without feeding. The males will now have left their hibernacula (the places in which they overwinter) and will be actively searching for females with which to mate. Early May is a good month to see adders dancing (a fight in which two adult males intertwine, each trying to push the other down) and mating, the male and female curled up together.

May is also the start of the sand lizard breeding season and the males are sporting vibrant green colours at the moment. Unfortunately, sand lizards are a rare sight in the UK and currently restricted to a few isolated areas of sandy heathland in Dorset, Hampshire and Surrey as well as the sand dunes of Wales and Lancashire.

Pearl-bordered fritillaryInvertebrates: Sadly, last year was the seventh worst year on record for British butterflies, according to the results of the UK Butterfly Monitoring Scheme, which were published last month. Two species in particular, the grayling (Hipparchia semele) and grizzled skipper (Pyrgus malvae), recorded their lowest numbers since records began in 1976. Broadly, numbers for most species were up on the 2016 counts, but hopes that year’s decent summer would result in a “bounce back” appear to have been dashed by the cold snap in spring and gloomy wet summer of 2017. It wasn’t all bad news, however, and Butterfly Conservation noted:

The warm start to the year helped some spring butterflies such as the threatened Pearl-bordered Fritillary [left] whose numbers rose by 57% compared to 2016. This is a species that has also benefitted from targeted conservation work.

The rare White Admiral bounced back following a terrible 2016 with an annual increase of 157%. Small Copper was up 28% compared to 2016 after a series of poor years and had its best year on record in Northern Ireland.

I have seen a couple of “blues” (too distant to assess species), a couple of very active “whites”, some brimstones, a few peacocks and a couple of speckled woods so far this year. Based on reports from friends, other species are around (e.g. orange-tips, green hairstreak, etc.), but they’re not particularly commonplace yet. Pearl-bordered fritillaries and the elusive purple emperor butterfly should also be on the wing this month.

There seems to be plenty of spider activity at the moment and there was a sizeable female false widow spider making her way across our driveway gates last night. Wolf spiders are abundant now, although I’ve yet to see any carrying egg sacs. If you’re in your garden after dark on mild nights this month and have a patio or any brick piles, look around carefully with a torch for the impressive pale pink-orange woodlouse spiders hunting their namesakes. A few other species to keep an eye out for this month include maybugs (aka common cockchafers), the elongate green and gold-spotted green tiger beetle, soldier beetles, nest-building wasps, hoverflies, well-armoured Minotaur and stag beetles, and the variously decorated longhorn beetles.

Slugs and snails hibernate when temperatures drop below about 5 Celsius (41 F), so they are now active across the country. The very cold snaps last winter may have killed off many slugs, but they still seem to be relatively abundant in our garden, particularly the very small individuals. The average British garden is estimated to be home to about 20,000 slugs in late spring, and there’s little evidence that there’s much gardeners can do to reduce that. One study found that even removing several thousand slugs from a garden over the course of a year had no significant impact on the number found the following year. Generally, it seems that warmer winters and wetter summers are likely to allow slugs and snails to remain active throughout the year. It will be interesting to see whether a boom in slug and snail populations bodes well for their predators, such as slowworms, thrushes and glowworms.

Plants and fungi: There are some spectacular bluebell displays around at the moment, as well as plenty of fruit blossom. Dog violet and campion add a splash of purple and pink, respectively, to our meadows and roadside verges this month, while wood sorrel, forget-me-nots and celandine provide the white, blue and yellow. May is also a great time for orchid-spotting with early spider and bird’s-nest orchids, the dazzling-pink lady orchid and the aptly-named early purple orchid in bloom. If you’re confident at identifying wildflowers, or are keen to learn, and have some spare time, you might be interested in joining the team of volunteers surveying kilometre-square plots of Britain’s countryside as part of the National Plant Monitoring Scheme.

If you’re heading for the coast this month, spring squill, English scurvy grass and common thrift (or ‘sea pink’, above) are among the plants on display. Fungi-wise, keep an eye out for glistening ink-caps, false deathcaps, chicken of the woods and large parasol mushrooms.

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Discoveries of the Month

Roads stress out roe deer
Roe deer doeLast month we looked at the increasing problem of deer involved in road traffic accidents across Europe and how the phases of the moon have a role to play for some species; the roe deer (Capreolus capreolus) in particular. Vehicles can, however, have more subtle impacts on wildlife, both in terms of the exhaust pollution and the noise they generate. Indeed, here in the New Forest it is difficult to find anywhere that major roads, such as the A31, cannot be heard.

We now know that exposure to persistent traffic noise isn’t good for our health. A study of 50,000 Danish people published in 2012, for example, found that people over 50 years old were at greater risk of a heart attack when living in areas with traffic noise exceeding 50 decibels (noticeable but not overwhelming). Part of this appeared to be associated with an increased risk of obesity and insomnia in this population. Overall, the researchers observed that the risk of a heart attack increased by 12% for every 10 decibel increase in traffic noise. More recently, a 2015 study in Germany found that people living in noisy neighbourhoods were 25% more likely to suffer from depression than those living in quieter ones. In the last 20 years or so, there is an increasing body of evidence that it also detrimentally affects wildlife, with birds increasingly singing at night to be heard over traffic noise among the best-known examples. A novel technique adopted by a team of Spanish researchers suggests that some mammals suffer in the presence of road noise, too.

In a paper to Environmental Monitoring Assessment, published last month, a team led by Universidad Politécnica de Madrid biologist Carlos Iglesias-Merchan presented their data on how a stress hormone present in roe deer droppings changed according to proximity to a road. The study was carried out in Spain’s Upper Lozoya valley and involved collecting roe deer droppings from seven plots within the study site, each located within a kilometre (just over half a mile) of a road with relatively light traffic – fewer than 1,000 cars per day. Droppings were collected between October 2009 and March 2010 and analysed for cortisol levels. Cortisol is widely recognised as a stress hormone and levels of “faecal cortisol metabolites”, or FCM, are a validated indicator of physiological stress in mammals.

The researchers calculated that these low-traffic roads generated between 4.3 and 5 dB of noise above that naturally present in the environment. Even in this low-traffic environment, roe deer droppings in plots close to the roads were almost 300 ng/g higher than those further away, indicating that the presence of even relatively quiet roads may be stressing these deer out. It must be emphasised that 300 ng/g is not a huge increase (cf. other studies that have found 500-600 ng/g difference) and the study has limited coverage. Nonetheless, in their paper, the biologists conclude:

Furthermore, our findings aroused the suspicion that low-traffic roads (< 1000 vehicles per day) could be capable of causing higher habitat degradation than has been deemed until now.”

Reference: Iglesias-Merchan, C. et al. (2018). A new large-scale index (AcED) for assessing traffic noise disturbance on wildlife: stress response in a roe deer (Capreolus capreolus) population. Environ. Monit. Assess. 190: 185.

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Antibodies for squirrelpox virus found in Irish red squirrels
Formerly known as “parapox”, the squirrelpox virus, or SQPV for short, is considered a major factor in the decline of the red squirrel (Sciurus vulgaris) in the United Kingdom. There’s still a lot we don’t know about the virus, but some studies have observed that red squirrel populations can decline up to 25 times more quickly when SQPV is present.

Red squirrelWe know that grey squirrels can carry the virus, without any apparent ill effects in the majority of cases, and in 2013, based on a study by Anthony Sainsbury and colleagues, the National Trust estimated that up to 60% of Britain’s grey squirrels may be carriers of the disease. SQPV seems highly virulent and can spread quickly through a population, resulting in almost complete mortality. Indeed, when the virus appeared in Merseyside in 2007, 85% of the red squirrels succumbed. Consequently, action is taken promptly upon discovery of the virus and this normally results in culling infected animals and disinfecting feeders. Recent work by a team of biologists in Ireland suggests, however, that this may not be the best approach.

In a letter to the Veterinary Record, published in March, Queen’s University Belfast’s Natasha McGowan and colleagues described the results of their recent serological study of red squirrels in Northern Ireland. Squirrels were trapped in three areas of the country, Tollymore Forest, Castle Caldwell and St Killian’s and blood samples were taken and analysed in the lab for evidence of exposure to SQPV. Three animals, all from Tollymore, tested positive for antibodies to the virus, but lesions associated with the disease (an indication that the virus has taken hold) were found in only one; the other two being apparently healthy. Given that we know symptoms are usually present by the time an animal tests seropositive for the virus, this finding suggests that these two squirrels were recovering from the virus. In their paper, McGowan and her co-workers write:

These findings reinforce that a small percentage of red squirrels can apparently survive SQPV infection. Antibody presence does not signify immunity to SQPV per se, as many squirrels that succumb also produce antibodies. However, if there is a genetic basis to survival, perhaps the extended exposure to SQPV and subsequent high mortality suffered
by the Tollymore population, where the virus was first isolated in 2011, has promoted selection for more resilient individuals
.”

These and other studies suggesting that a small percentage of red squirrels can survive exposure to SQPV and cast doubt on immediate culling as a strategy for tackling infection, because infected individuals may be vital to generating virus-resistant populations.

Reference: McGowan, N. et al. (2018). Squirrelpox virus antibodies detected in red squirrels. Vet. Rec. 182(12): 355.

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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: 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 this month go to Kevin Robson for his superb photo of a badger cub in Cambridgeshire and Tapio Kaisla for his stunning pearl-bordered fritillary shot.

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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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