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Content Updated: 1st November 2017

SEASONAL UPDATE: November 2017

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October started out on a fairly chilly note. It didn’t last as low pressure systems drew warm air from southern Europe over the UK, resulting in an unseasonably warm spell around the middle of the month, temperatures reaching 23C (73F) in southern England. This mild spell directly preceded ex-hurricane Ophelia, which barrelled into the UK on 16th October, bringing heavy rain and 97mph gusts of wind to Ireland, parts of northern England and Scotland. Thousands of homes and businesses lost power during the storm, several people were injured and, tragically, three people died. Ophelia also unearthed an Iron Age skeleton that had been buried near Kilmore Quay in County Wexford for some 1,500 years, and left much of the UK with eerie skies. Clouds of dust from the Sahara and ash from forest fires on the Iberian Peninsula drawn up by Ophelia turned the skies orange and the day to dusk. The eldritch effect made for some spectacular photos, particularly for a couple getting married in Northumberland at the time, but also confused some of our wildlife, with reports of birds falling silent and hedgehogs coming out to feed.

At the end of the same week, storm Brian arrived, bringing 60-70mph winds to the midlands and south of Britain and Ireland. This was followed by a very brief spell of cool weather courtesy of a north-westerly airflow, but this didn’t persist and we ended the month unseasonably mild with temperatures in the high teens. Traditionally, November is the stormiest month, but October has certainly set the bar high. As I write this, the models for November predict that, after an unsettled start, high pressure will develop across the UK, bringing more settled conditions with light winds and cold nights to all but the far north-west. Assuming this to be the case, we should see the first frosts of the autumn.

If you want to get out 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 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 also running a series of events this month, details of which can be found here.

Dozing Red deer stagMammals: We typically see the deer rut coming to an end by now, but having experienced yet another mild autumn the rut may be protracted, particularly if November sees a chilly start. Either way, sika deer sometimes extend their rut into November, so some forests, particularly in Dorset, may still ring to their strained whistles. If you are going out to look for deer this (and indeed any) month, please keep your distance. Some photos appeared in the press last month showing some visitors at Wollaton Hall park in Nottingham sitting right next to mature red stags resting on the grass to take a selfie. One man even put his head between a stag’s antlers to have his photo taken. Fortunately, in these cases the animals, being exhausted from the rut, didn’t react; but these are hefty creatures (a big stag can easily weigh 200kgs / 500 lbs / 30 st. or more) and things could easily have ended badly.

Fox society is very active this month as tensions start rising within the family group and many cubs will disperse to look for their own territory. The fox breeding season runs from around December until February, but you might start to hear more calling even now. Badgers, by contrast, are starting to venture out less as the nights get colder. Badgers don’t hibernate, but they are generally much less active during the winter, preferring to spend the coldest months underground where their cubs will be born early next year.

Many of our smaller mammals are also busy either stocking their larders for the winter (bank voles, wood mice and squirrels, for example) or eating as much as they can to put on weight to see them through the cold months during which they’ll hibernate (bats, dormice and hedgehogs fall into this category). With that in mind, some hedgehogs will be looking for suitable hibernation spots and are attracted to large piles of leaves and branches that make ideal hibernacula. Unfortunately, such piles of garden debris often turn out to be bonfires, particularly in November. Please make an extra effort to check bonfires for hibernating hedgehogs before lighting them – ideally, build it on the day you plan to light it. November is also a busy month for wildlife rescue centres as they are swamped with small hedgehogs, born late in the year, too small to survive hibernation. If you come across a small hedgehog, or any hedgehog out during the day, check out the Caring for Hedgehogs article on this site for advice and contact numbers. Many people stay away from the coastline at this time of year owing to the wild weather that tends to blow in, but some are drawn to the power of storms as they make landfall. Not only do our coasts offer some dramatic landscapes during November, but they’re also a great place for mammal spotting. Whales and dolphins are drawn to shore following fish shoals, while seal pups are born or are taking to the water for the first time during November.

Birds: Now that the mass immigration of overwintering birds is well and truly underway, many birders are heading to estuaries to observe the flocks of sanderling, knot, dunlin, and sandpipers working the mudflats just ahead of the tide. Where birds gather in significant numbers, of course, predators can also be found, and birds of prey including peregrines and harriers are drawn by these waders. In nearby fields you can usually find swans and geese feeding; somewhere in the region of 50,000 barnacle geese fly in from as far away as Russia to spend the winter in our comparatively mild climes. Waders and geese aren’t the only birds that form impressive flocks at this time of year and Britain’s starling population is swollen by immigrants from Europe, leading to murmurations of a million birds or more, wheeling and diving as a single entity in the skies at sunset. Brighton Pier, Aberystwyth Pier, the Somerset Levels, Huddersfield station and the Forth Bridge in Edinburgh are particularly good places to see these spectacular flocks. Other species are starting to flock together now, too, albeit in less impressive style. Increasingly large aggregations of thrushes and finches can be seen in our countryside and woodland in November. As autumn moves into winter, the thrushes will be joined by more fieldfares and redwings, while mixed finch flocks will contain goldfinches, chaffinches and bramblings. Rooks and jackdaws are also forming large groups now, and rooks will start pairing up as we approach Christmas.

Some birds will also move south within the UK and it is during November that hen harriers usually appear back on the New Forest, many having travelled down from their breeding grounds in the uplands of northern England, north Wales and Scotland. During autumn, our resident birds are joined by individuals from the continent who overwinter in Britain and Ireland. Short-eared owls also move further south during winter and are frequently seen around our coasts as autumn moves to winter. Indeed, now is quite a good time for owl-spotting; as leaves are stripped from the trees by the autumn storms, these birds can be easier to see. In particular, tawny owls are easier to track down at this time of year because they are also re-establishing territories and pair-bonds, which entails quite a bit of calling. Going out at dusk to your local park or woodland will often allow you to locate the tawny’s daytime roost, from which it frequently calls before moving off to hunt. If you can relocate that site during the day, you stand a reasonable chance of a view of the owl itself. Another predatory bird that migrates to spend the winter here in the New Forest is the great grey shrike, which usually arrives in the south-east of the country during November from its breeding grounds in Scandinavia. Many of our summer visitors will have left now, but you may be lucky and get a view of a straggling osprey passing through southern England on its way to its wintering ground in South Africa.

Wall lizardReptiles, amphibians and fish: There’s not much happening in the world of herps this month, particularly as we start getting frosty weather. We do still have a few frogs in our garden pond and some will remain in ponds all winter, hibernating at the bottom. Most amphibians will, however, spend the winter under logs and leaf litter until things warm up next spring. That said, our climate does appear to be changing and we’re starting to see more reports of much earlier frogspawn (during December in 2014), so all bets are off.

Most snakes and lizards will enter hibernation during November, although unusually mild sunny weather may tempt them back out to bask. Some lizards, particularly the introduced wall lizards found along the south coast, can be found out and about even during the winter, but most sensibly stay under cover. If you do see any amphibians (frogs, toads or newts) or reptiles (snakes or lizards) during the winter, the Amphibian and Reptile Groups of the UK (ARG UK) want to hear from you – you can submit your records online using this form.

Not all cold-blooded animals are hunkering down for the winter and November represents the peak of the salmon run, during which mature fish work their way up our rivers from the Atlantic to their spawning grounds. These fish hatched out high in these freshwater rivers where they spent up to eight years feeding and growing before migrating to the sea in which they have spent the past four or five years. Having reached breeding age, they have been congregating in estuaries for the last few weeks waiting for the autumn rains to swell the rivers and provide sufficiently high water levels for them to make their way back. During this journey the fish do not feed; they remain completely focused on their goal, hurling themselves against walls of water, up waterfalls and over dykes. Those that make it to their shallow spawning grounds pair up and, after a short jostling courtship, the female releases her eggs for the male to fertilise by releasing a cloud of sperm into the water. Both die shortly thereafter and their bodies return to the river in which they were conceived. There are several locations where you can watch the salmon run – check out this BBC blog for some recommendations.

Invertebrates: There are a few butterflies still on the wing, visiting ivy and windfall fruits, including red admirals, peacocks and commas. Ladybirds will start gathering en masse under bark, in window frames and sheds/garages to spend the winter in torpor, while most beetles will be retreating underground or under logs. Many insects (even some amphibians) will overwinter in long grass, and leaving an area of your lawn overgrown can be immensely valuable to hibernating invertebrates. If you can create a log pile, even better. Some moths and beetles will overwinter as pupae and winter gardeners occasionally uncover these brown chrysalises while working through flowerbeds – if you do dig one up, just re-bury it where you found it. There are a few spiders around, particularly as October was so mild, but these will gradually start retiring if the weather cools, although some in houses and sheds/garages may continue to make their presence known into next month. In our parks and woodlands most spiders either die at the end of the breeding season, before the cold sets in, or overwinter in the leaf litter. Slugs and snails, particularly the giant leopard slug, may also be found out and about during November, particularly if the weather remains mild and damp.

New Forest fungiPlants and fungi: Late autumn/early winter is a good time to look for mosses, lichens, wall ferns and spleenworts. Fungi is also evident this month, with the bright but deadly red-capped fly agaric, the other-worldly looking devil’s fingers, the delicate purple amethyst deceiver and the innocuous brown deadman’s fingers around in November. It’s worth bearing in mind that the fungi we see are just the tip of the iceberg, so to speak. The mushroom is the fruiting body, the purpose of which is to produce and distribute spores, and is only a small part of the fungus. The bulk of the fungus is present year-round in the wood/soil/humus and consists of a large web of microscopic cotton-like threads (called hyphae) that may cover several miles; the whole web of hyphae making up a single fungus is called a mycelium. The mycelium branches out into the substratum and the long, thin hyphae allow it to absorb nutrients and water across a huge surface area. Indeed, fungi have no chlorophyll, which means they cannot photosynthesise to produce carbohydrates (food) as plants do. Instead, most fungi are saphrotrophs: they attack and digest plants and animals (living or dead). A few species enter into a symbiotic relationship (known as a mycorrhizal association) with certain plants, their hyphae invading the root systems of their host to steal sugars from their circulation; in return the fungi act as an extension of the plant’s root network, allowing it to take up nutrients from a much wider area than it could manage on its own.

During the autumn, the mild and wet conditions prompt the modification of either individual hyphae or sections of the mycelium (depending on species) into the fruiting bodies that we know as mushrooms or toadstools. The fruiting body expands quickly (it doesn’t technically grow), often in a matter of hours. The hypha becomes modified into a button-like structure called a hymenophore and, when conditions are right, the fruiting body absorbs moisture and air from the environment causing the cells in the tissue to expand and the fruiting body inflates. The hymenophore of many species is covered with a thin membrane called a hymenium (or universal veil), which is torn as the fruiting body expands; the remnants often remain as a ‘skirt’ around the fungi’s stem and, as in the case of the fly agaric, pieces may stick to the cap (these are the white spots). The spores are released from gills or veins (again, depending on species) on the underside of the fruiting body’s cap; these structures need to be aligned correctly so they run parallel to the ground (allowing the spores to drop under the influence of gravity) and the fruiting body can realign the cap by bending the stem as it inflates, allowing it to grow out of a vertical surface.

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Discoveries and in the news this month

Mole-rats can survive in zero oxygen
Naked mole rat
The naked mole-rat (Heterocephalus glaber - right), or “sand puppy”, is among the most bizarre-looking mammals to be found on Earth. Native to the deserts of east Africa, this small, largely bald rodent spends most of its life in its subterranean tunnel network where its low metabolism helps it maintain the record for the longest-lived rodent known to science, surviving a staggering 32 years. We’ve known for a while now that mole-rats are resistant to certain diseases, particularly cancers, but new research suggests they can also do what no other mammal can – manufacture oxygen. A drawback of living life underground is that oxygen can quickly become depleted as carbon dioxide builds up, but this unique ability allows these rodents to survive for several hours in oxygen levels that would kill us in minutes, and they can survive without oxygen for almost 20 minutes.

In a recent paper to the journal Science, Thomas Park of the University of Illinois at Chicago and colleagues report that, when exposed to anoxic (oxygen-free) conditions, the mole-rats switch to an anaerobic metabolism fuelled by the sugar fructose. When the oxygen disappears, the researchers found that the rodents went into a kind of torpor, during which their heart rate dropped from 200 to 50 beats per minute and their body was flooded with fructose that was metabolised to lactate in the brain, allowing them to survive without oxygen for up to 18 minutes. Until now, this metabolism had only been recorded in plants. When the mole-rats got a sniff of oxygen again they resumed activity as if nothing had happened and suffered no apparent tissue damage. Park and his colleagues hope that this might help treat humans who have had heart attacks or strokes, during which lack of oxygen causes cell death.

Living with lynx
Most readers will doubtless have heard of the plans to reintroduce lynx to Britain in an attempt to help reduce our burgeoning (roe) deer population. This is a hugely controversial idea and debate has intensified since the Lynx UK Trust announced, in July, that it had submitted a plan to Natural England that would see six GPS-collared lynx kittens from Sweden released in Northumberland’s Kielder Forest as part of a five year pilot. In a recent blog, David Hethergton, Peter Cairns and Mark Hamblin put forward the case for reintroducing the lynx (Lynx lynx) to the UK, suggesting that mainland Scotland north of the central belt could support around 400 animals, with 50 more in the southern Uplands. The naturalists discuss the potential for sheep predation and the concerns that lynx may negatively impact capercaillie. (At the end of September the Lynx UK Trust announced that an insurance agreement with Lloyds Syndicate ARK Speciality Programs has been established to insure the entire UK sheep population against lynx attacks, although the National Sheep Association point out that this is about animal welfare more than money.) They also touch upon a subject discussed at length on this site: the potential for lynx to reduce the fox population. The British Deer Society recently published a detailed commissioned report on the potential impacts of lynx reintroduction in the UK that provides a more formal, scientific review of the evidence.

Personally, I doubt the British public, who typically have difficulty living alongside mesocarnivores such as foxes and badgers, have the capacity to accept larger predators in their fields and forests. Given that foxes are a significant source of roe kid mortality in much of Europe, I wonder what impact the introduction of a predator likely to reduce the fox population might have on deer numbers.

Roe deer doe with kidRoe deer with quintuplets
The roe deer (Capreolus capreolus - left) is capable of rapid population recovery because it’s what we call a polytocous species – in other words, it produces several offspring in a single litter. Indeed, twins are the norm (in about 60% of litters) and even triplets are common, particularly Scandinavia and other northern populations; it is relatively rare for a doe to produce only one kid. A recent study of almost 5,000 roe deer uteri from Italy and Slovenia led by Slovenian Forestry Institute biologist Katarina Flajšman found two does from Tuscany were carrying five foetuses, all of which were normally developed. Overall, the team identified ten animals that either carried or had the potential to carry (based on the number of corpora lutea) five kids. More interestingly, there was no statistically significant tendency for these animals to be heavier (i.e. in better condition) than the others in the population. This is important because it suggests that normally-sized does can have large litters, rather than such events being the preserve of so-called “very vital” individuals that may only attain the weight needed under exceptional conditions.

New fox book published
Last month, Surrey-based ecologist Adele Brand published her book Fox: A biography of Britain’s natural neighbour. I was privileged to have the opportunity to proof read the book for Adele and can personally recommend it to anyone interested both in fox biology and the struggles of an ecologist trying to both study and help people live with them. It is the combination of Adele’s meticulous observation, scientific approach and worldwide travels that helps put this book in a class of its own. In addition, Adele writes in such a richly descriptive way that you quickly find yourself in the Land Rover speeding through the desert with her; or standing in the same urban alleyway wondering how to secure your trailcam from thieves; or in Białowieża following a wolf with hind footprint the size of her hand. A worthy addition to your bookshelf.

New research chews up what we thought we knew about white shark dentition
For decades it was widely accepted that white sharks (Carcharodon carcharias) exhibit an ontogenetic change in their dentition. The shape of their teeth changes from pointed ‘daggers’ (ideal for snagging fish) to broad serrated ones better suited to handling mammalian prey. In other words, when the sharks reached about three metres (10ft) in length their diet was thought to switch from primarily fish and squid to include more mammals, such as dolphins and seals. During the course of her Ph.D. project at Sussex University, however, Georgia French of marine conservation charity SharkStuff found the situation is actually more complicated… and more interesting. In a paper to the Journal of Fish Biology earlier this month, French and her colleagues show that this only appears to be the case for males – females can have pointed or broad teeth at any age. This calls into question the previous assumption of a dietary change from fish to mammals with age in this species, because either it happens only for males or tooth shape isn’t related to diet. Alternatively, if a shift does occur, it may be less predictable in females.

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Wildlife Online Update

Some of you may have noticed that Wildlife Online is looking, erm, a bit tired. The format is significantly out of date and most of the content hasn’t been updated for a long time. Well, there is a plan and, as some of you already know, I have been working hard behind the scenes to try and refresh the site that is 15 years old this month. As you might imagine, this is no small task. When the site first launched it consisted of 17 pages and had only short articles on three species – foxes, badgers and sharks. Today, the site stands at some 50 pages, covers nine species and has 70 QAs. Furthermore, much of this content is also quite, well, long.

2011 saw the second major revision in the site’s history and incorporated the release of the “new and improved” fox article, which has increased from 27 to 120 pages. In 2015, I decided it was time to overhaul the site again and migrate it to a compliant platform…in this case, WordPress. I commissioned a web designer to build the skeleton site for me while I set about updating the content. So, I spent most of 2016 and some of this year revising all the content on the site - everything has been reviewed and most of it has been updated, some significantly. The last few months were then consumed as I attempted to migrate this content into WordPress. This migration taught me something important: WordPress is really not the right platform for Wildlife Online. I won’t bore you with the details, but several significant formatting obstacles and curiously bloated code caused me to ditch the platform last month.

Following a fortuitous exchange of e-mails, at the same time I teamed up with a different designer who is building me a compliant CMS-based website that should suit my needs better than WP.Unfortunately, while I’m really excited about this new approach, it does mean I'm back to square one with the content and this represents another delay in getting the updated content live, because I now need to re-format the articles I had already put onto the WP site. That said, the designer is doing a sterling job and we're making great progress. The intention is to try and make some headway with this during November and (everything crossed) get the revised site live by the end of the year. It is, however, a huge challenge for both myself and the designer, but one I hope will pay off when you see the new and improved Wildlife Online. With all this in mind, I’d like to thank all those of you who have supported me with this project. In particular, thanks to those who have volunteered to test out the new site; who have donated photos to the new site; and to those who have proof-read some of the revised articles (*waves at Ali Magnum*). Watch this space.

New Forest dawn

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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 as always for your continued patience and support.

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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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