Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Halcyon River Diaries

Earlier this year I shared about how I had enjoyed Philippa Forrester's book, The River. Yesterday evening, I watched the latest instalment of Halcyon River Diaries charting the ongoing story of the family's life interacting with the wildlife living on the river. The fact that Philippa is married to a top BBC wildlife cameraman makes for some incredible images and stories, including catching up with the local Kingfishers, Dippers & Otters.

There are another 11 days during which you can catch up with the programme on the BBC iPlayer at

Towards the end of the programme there is a really dramatic scene. Discovering a young American Mink setting up territory on their stretch of the river they reluctantly set up a Mink trap. Eventually they check the trap one morning to find the Mink inside. Now that it's been trapped there's only one course of action - it has to be dispatched, much to the distress of both Philippa & husband, Charlie, who has to shoot it. It's well worth following this part of the story which begins at about 44 minutes into the programme. Continue watching for some great shots of the Water Voles living in the town of Cheddar, a sight which helps the family to come to terms with the action they had to take earlier.

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Book Review - Pearce on Badgers

One of the advantages of my love for our British wildlife is the fact that my family never gets stuck when it comes to choosing Christmas gifts. As I excitedly opened my presents on Christmas Day the pile of books around my feet grew and grew. My Amazon Wish-list had been used to great effect!!

George Pearce’s book, entitled Badger Behaviour, Conservation & Rehabilitation, was my father’s present. I’ve just finished reading it and can wholeheartedly recommend it to anyone perusing this blog who would like to learn more about this fascinating animal. The subtitle is ’70 Years of Getting to Know Badgers’. George's passion began when he encountered his first badger whilst cycling home as a 14 year old during the famous arctic winter of 1946-7. His knowledge grew during the years he spent as a pig farmer, and he has been able to put everything he has learned to good use as a Badger Consultant since giving up farming in 1990. I say ‘good use’ advisedly. In the world of the amateur naturalist, wildlife consultants to developers and government bodies are often perceived as being ‘tainted’ by association and apt to side with the wishes of the organisation paying their fees – and I have certainly heard a few horror stories over the past few years – but George certainly comes across as someone with real integrity, always seeking to put the needs of the badger first and foremost. I guess some people will still struggle, though, with George’s response to the chairman of a local CPRE group wanting advice on the best grounds for objecting to the planned construction of a new road that happened to run right through George’s badger study area: ‘To her surprise I said they should welcome it with open arms. As the proposed route crossed arable land, I took the view that there would be far better habitat after construction than there was before; there would be more permanent grassed areas and a variety of small trees and shrubs would be planted.’

George writes in an anecdotal way, and the stories of his personal experiences are really enjoyable. Early on, he tells the story of being called out to check on a group of badgers marooned on an island after the Rivers’ Severn & Vyrnwy had overflowed their banks and inundated the surrounding countryside. George managed to wade across to find 11 badgers safe and sound, most of them – including 2 in the canopy of a tree – asleep! Checking them again the following day he writes, ‘As I got closer to the elder tree, I was greeted by a sight that will live forever in my memory. In front of me was a huge ball of badgers, half a metre above ground level, wedged between the wire fence and the tree trunk. Amazingly, they weren’t in any distress – quite the contrary, they were asleep, their breathing synchronized! I assumed there were nine badgers in the ball, as there were two fast asleep on a limb in the treetop.’ Fortunately, George took a photo of the scene which can be seen in the photo section of the book.

The main chapter headings give a real taster as to what this book is all about: Badger biology; The world of the sett; Badgers in the family; Badger rescue; Badger consultancy; Badgers and farming; Badger-watching. There’s also a useful index at the back. Within the chapters is a wealth of knowledge and practical advice that will really inspire both those with a developing interest in wildlife, together with those who regularly watch and read about badgers. I was amazed to learn just how much soil a badger can shift in an evening and, concerning tunnels, I was interested in George’s theory that badgers, like moles, build the tunnels to act as a means of catching worms & any other invertebrates which fall into them. He also proposes that most of the injuries reported indicate that the majority of fights between badgers are hierarchical rather than territorial in nature. As a former farmer, his discussion on bovine TB is enlightening, based on the observation of a vet: ‘To create a disease you have to create the conditions.’ George feels that we haven’t learned from the experiences of the past and that our agricultural biosecurity is nowhere near as tight as in years gone by: 'In the cattle industry, the increase of bTB has happened in parallel with the changes in management of dairy and beef cattle and if I were in farming today that's where I would want the research concentrated.'

George’s character shines through the pages of this book. Are there any conditions where even the most ardent badger-watcher is likely going to struggle to see anything? I quote: ‘But a cold east wind? Stay indoors and put your feet up. As Corporal Jones of Dad’s Army might put it: ‘badgers don’t like it up ‘em’.’

George concludes, ‘This farmer’s boy is old in the tooth now. The back creaks and the joints complain. But the wonderful memories live on and I feel very privileged that wild animals have allowed me to share part of their lives with them. I hope many of you will feel that way too.’

Monday, December 27, 2010


I'm almost embarrassed to say that, due to busyness followed by illness, today was the first day that I've actually had the chance to explore some of the local snowy wastes. I can hardly believe that I've missed out on so many brilliant opportunities to see what's happening in the local countryside by looking at the various tracks left by our wildlife.

I took the opportunity to check a local sett that I haven't surveyed properly for a few years. There were 2 entrances under a fenceline and they both looked like they were well-used. Here, you can see where the Badger exits to the right-hand-side, leaving a trail of muddy snow!

Badgers spend a lot of time underground when it's very cold, so perhaps it wasn't surprising that it was difficult to find good tracks to photograph. This is about as good as it got!

When looking at some tracks from the rear, it was easier to see the 5 claws in a line, typical of Badger.

I walked right around the edge of Maggs Field in Ampthill Park. These are Red Fox & Rabbit tracks crossing one another.

I know that some people will hate me for saying this, but I hope we get more snow and I get the opportunity to get out a bit more!! :-)

Friday, December 24, 2010


If you missed it last year, here's my favourite Christmas greeting from all of our friends in the countryside. I'm recovering from the lurgee here - it will make it all the more satisfying to get out & about next week!!

Merry Christmas & a Happy New Year,


Sunday, December 19, 2010

Duck End Nature Reserve

Here are some photos of Thursday morning's Nestbox day at Duck End Nature Reserve in Maulden, courtesy of David Withers. Thanks to Peter Wilkinson for providing the necessary expertise in advising on, locating and erecting the boxes.

The first box to go up was this Tawny Owl nestbox. It looks very swish, but Tawny Owls are notoriously difficult to get settled. I've got high hopes for this one, though!

Earlier in the year I discovered a pair of Kestrels nesting on top of an old Crow's nest in the Silver Birch copse. This des res should be much more suitable for them!

And, finally, here's the Barn Owl box being placed into position. That A-frame nestbox was really heavy, but it's fixed as solid as a rock, now.

I'm tempted to put up a 'Vacant Possession' sign! We recovered some relatively fresh Barn Owl pellets from a local barn which I'm hoping to dissect over the next week or two. I can already see a Shrew skull and 2 sets of Field Vole incisors!!

Saturday, December 18, 2010


I've had little chance to get out into the countryside recently, though I enjoyed a morning placing Barn Owl, Tawny Owl & Kestrel nest boxes at Duck End a few days ago.

A record shot of 2 of the 8 Waxwings that were present in Flitwick recently. The Waxwing invasion this year has been pretty impressive with just about all of the Scandinavian population swarming across the North Sea to feast on our berry bushes.

This is the banner that will accompany our nature table that will go into local schools next year (see below). We're really pleased with the result. Thanks to Andy Wyldes of Butterfly Conservation for helping to design it for us. It's being modelled by myself and Erika Pratt.

Finally, a photo of a Hampton Forge 8" Chef's Knife...I bought one of these yesterday to help me get my last mammal in these final few weeks before the year's end. Over the last 12 months I've watched numerous molehills gradually rising into the air, but I haven't yet caught sight of any of the occupants. This should help me locate runs and, maybe, cut around an 'active' molehill that I can then lift with a large spade, complete with surprised Mole....that's what I'm hoping, anyway! Watch this space.

Saturday, November 27, 2010

Lower End

Chinese Water Deer are beginning to be noticeable in the local fields again. I saw five from the car in the Ridgmont area this morning. Just south of Lower End I searched an area of rough grass where this species often settles down for the day, and disturbed two individuals, including this one, which I managed to get a brief shot of as it bounded into the hedge!

I released the Harvest Mouse back over Flitton Moor some time ago, now, but I really enjoyed the period that it spent as my guest in the study and felt that I really began to understand something of it's lifestyle & habits. Next year I'm determined to learn more about this fascinating creature!

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Flitton Moor

Here’s a more in-depth report of this morning’s excitement!

This photograph shows the River Flit close to the village of Flitton. It is under the bridge that you can just make out on the right that the Otter paw-prints and spraint were found a few weeks ago. The main expanse of Flitton Moor is located the far side of the copse on the right, and behind the camera. Between the copse and the path is a water-filled ditch, and it is here that I found one of the Harvest Mouse nests (See here).

Between Thursday and today, I’ve had 8 Longworth small mammal traps set along a 30m stretch of this ditch bank, beginning just after the end of the copse in an effort to find my first ever wild Harvest Mouse.

In that time, incorporating 5 box-checks, I have trapped 19 Bank Voles and 4 Common Shrews (some of the Bank Voles, particularly, were probably ‘trap-happy’ and entered the traps several times!). As I approached the last trap this morning, set in the midst of a bramble bush, I was beginning to think that Harvest Mouse was going to elude me this year. So I was delighted when I emptied it to find a surprised-looking Harvest Mouse exploring the depths of the plastic bag!

So, here she is again – at least, I’m calling her a ‘she’ though it could as easily be a male. It’s thought that our UK Harvest Mice are slowly declining – it’s certainly been harder to find them in Bedfordshire in recent years, though that is probably due at least in part to a lack of people searching for them – a 1972 nest survey here revealed them to be fairly widespread. They’re certainly tiny, weighing only 5-11 grams!

When I’ve had the opportunity during the day I’ve been transfixed as I’ve watched this winsome creature creeping through the grass, or else clambering among the hogweed stems, sometimes gripping them with her prehensile tail as she stretches out to sniff the Bertolli tub! I’ve watched her wash, lap water from a bottle top, nibble grains held between his paws, and spend quite some time simply staring back at me from the other side of the glass! The Bertolli margarine tub contains the Harvest Mouse nest that I found on Flitton Moor a few weeks ago (see above). I fashioned an entrance with my penknife and she’s readily taken to it, and is tucked away safely as I write – of course, it could even be the nest where she was raised!

Flitton Moor

I've only got time for a brief note here, but I was really excited this morning when emptying the 8th and final trap to find a delightful Harvest Mouse running around in the bottom of my little aquarium, my first in the wild...just as I was beginning to give up hope of ever finding one! I'll write a bit more later, but I've got it here at home for a little while, and it's happily eating the meadowsweet seeds and pieces of grain provided. Wonderful!

Friday, November 12, 2010

Marston Vale Country Park

This Bank Vole is one of 6 that were present in 8 traps on a 30m stretch of ditch parallel to the River Flit. There was also a Common Shrew in one of the other traps, a pretty good trapping rate!

I spent the morning in the Marston Vale Country Park Centre displaying our BNHS ‘Bring Back The Nature Table’ exhibit during an environmental education event attended by a number of Bedfordshire schools. Schools are able to ‘book’ this nature table for a few weeks. After an initial assembly, or other time demonstrating the table to the children, we leave it with them. The idea is that it will help to inspire the children to begin to bring together their own nature table. The mink stole on the left hand side of the display was the real hit – the children loved stroking it and putting it around their necks, and I was able to relate the story of the American Mink in the British countryside.

The Education team from Whipsnade Zoo were a few tables away. I put one of my Fallow Deer droppings alongside their Elephant dropping…it's the little black dot to the right!! Although they had a Tiger skin, Tiger skull, stuffed Penguin and ivory tusk, Jackie & Hannah, their Education Officers, kept popping along and exploring our nature table. In fact, I think that it was a real hit all round, one teacher excitedly exclaiming that it covered the whole of their curriculum! I’m really looking forward to us getting it into the schools and developing this simple concept.

Thursday, November 11, 2010


Dave Parsons recently found a Yellow-necked Mouse next to the freezer in his garage. He has also trapped House Mouse and Wood Mouse over the year. Still not having seen Yellow-necked Mouse in 2010, I set up a number of Longworth traps in various places, and have since been waiting in hope.

Nothing yesterday but, this morning, Dave rang to say that the doors on two of the traps in his garage roof-space were shut. The first trap revealed this individual. Yellow-necked Mice are bigger than the more common Wood Mouse, and share several distinctive features. The relatively large ears and eyes look good for Yellow-necked.

And the dark ‘stripe’ on the dorsal area, extending between the ears and onto the face, looks good too.

But this is the clincher. A terrible photo, but one that clearly shows the ginger ‘collar’ which gives the Yellow-necked Mouse its name. This is the best photo of the underside that I could get due to the frenzied ‘bouncing’ around of this Tigger-like rodent….another Yellow-necked Mouse trait!

Unfortunately, the Mouse in the other trap escaped, but I'm convinced that it turned around and smirked at me before disappearing behind a gap...that's one trait the guides don't mention!

Monday, November 1, 2010

Chandos Road, Ampthill

Readers of this blog will know that I constructed an ‘uber-Hedgehog table’ in our back garden earlier in the year. Unfortunately, there was never any evidence that it was used, and I felt just a little hard-done-by when our next-door neighbour recently informed us that she had found a Hedgehog under some leaves on the other side of our fence!

After lunch today, Carole and I spent an hour or so in the back garden picking up the leaves that had fallen. If you look on the left-hand-side of this photograph, you will see a pile of leaves that I have deliberately built up.

That is because I discovered this Hedgehog nest as I cleared the leaves away. It’s a fairly substantial pile of stems and leaves and it was pretty obvious that it was the winter hibernaculum where the occupant would spend the next five or six months in a deep sleep.

I carefully peeled the outer layers away, and could feel the heat even before revealing this good-sized individual. It moved a little which, together with the heat, suggests that it is still fairly active, but it won’t be long before its body temperature drops to the rate of its surroundings, 4 degrees C being the ideal. At that temperature, its heart beat will slow from about 147 beats per minute to an amazing 2-12 beats per minute. I didn’t want to disturb it any more and so quickly replaced the vegetation.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Galley Hill, Luton

Back to Galley Hill early this afternoon in search of yesterday's Shore Lark and, this time, success! Many thanks to Steve Blain for staying around to help locate the bird for me, letting me look through his 'scope, and allowing me to display his photo of this cracking bird above (the photo was taken yesterday). The Lapland Buntings were proving very elusive today, but a small group of us managed to get some great views of the male.

The County's top birders have enjoyed increasing their Bedfordshire bird species list this weekend. The current totals are:
Dave Ball - 256
Barry Nightingale - 256
Peter Smith - 255
Martin Palmer - 255
Dave Odell - 255
I'm not an ardent 'lister', and haven't gone out of my way to see a couple of the rarer birds flying I'm miles behind on a paltry 216, but really pleased to have been a part of the excitement this weekend!

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Galley Hill, Luton

The hail & driving rain took something of the anticipated polish off the Leicester-Bath game at Welford Road so, when news of a Shore Lark at Galley Hill just east of Luton came through, it really was no contest!

I arrived to find the great & good of Bedfordshire's birding fraternity in a frenzy of excitement. The Shore Lark - only the 5th one found in the County - had been a County 'tick' for all of these longstanding local twitchers but, whilst scouring the empty fields, two (yes, two) Lapland Buntings had also been located in the midst of the Skylark flock....adding up to an amazing two County ticks in a few hours, the only previous 'Lap Bunt' in Bedfordshire being recorded in the same year that England won the World Cup! It's reckoned that these birds had probably bred in Greenland.

Unfortunately, the stir caused by the Lapland Buntings had understandably drawn attention away from the Shore Lark, which had not been seen for a while before I arrived, and didn't reappear for the rest of the afternoon. But I was well chuffed to see the Lapland Buntings (a male and female), including great views of the two of them flying around in the bright sunshine.

Friday, October 22, 2010

Eversholt area

I really enjoyed an hour's wander over the fields near Eversholt.

This small deer slot is only 3cm long and almost certainly belongs to a Muntjac deer.

This deer slot is a lot more problematic. At just over 5cm long, it's too large for Muntjac, Roe, or Chinese Water Deer, but it's too small for an adult Fallow or Sika Deer. I reckon that it must be a young Fallow Deer though, in this area alongside the Woburn Abbey Estate, it could be anything!

There were hundreds of Red-legged Partridges and Pheasants strutting, calling and 'helicoptering' about. I reckon that there's at least 17 individuals present in this photo....and the majority will probably end up on someone's dinner table! There has been a debate about the effect of these game birds on the populations of other animals where they are intensively stocked (In the UK we release between 30,000,000 & 40,000,000 ever year!!). It's reckoned that there wouldn't be many Common Lizards in an area like this, for instance! If you're a Red Fox, or a Polecat, or Stoat, though, it must seem like Christmas has come early!

The photos above were taken yesterday afternoon. I returned early this morning hoping to catch some deer out in the open.

This slot is about 7cm, though there's a lot of slippage in the wet mud.

In the end, this distant male Muntjac was the only deer seen this morning, but I wonder just how many are seeing the day out in the middle of the numerous woods of this area!

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Flitton Moor

[This photo by permission of John Pitts]

I can’t believe that it’s been so long since I was last out in the local countryside! At the end of the morning, I took the opportunity to meet up with the Greensand Volunteers who were doing a great job clearing a clogged-up water channel at Flitton Moor. The other reason was to spend an hour or two searching for Harvest Mouse nests.

This Otter print was under the bridge from which the first photo was taken. I reckon that it’s a left fore print. It’s about 6 ½ cm long, with 5 toes – the 1st & 5th toes not being aligned. I think I can just make out a faint webbing mark in the soft mud.

There was also some old spraint on a log under the bridge. Even though it was old, the smell was very fishy.

This dropping was old, too. There was no fishy whiff, but there definitely was a distinct lingering odour – almost certainly Mink.

I’d gone down to the Moor to catch up with the Greensand Volunteers and to do a quick search for Harvest Mouse nests. In the first clump of Common Reed, within 5 minutes of starting the search, I found this nest - unbelievable!!

Then, a hundred metres or so down the footpath in another patch of Common Reed alongside the River Flit I found this old nest close to the ground.

Here are the 2 nests together, which gives you an idea of the difference in size.

On the way home I stopped off and quickly examined the Common Reed in a field alongside the road near the Silsoe turn of the A503. I soon found this interesting ‘nest’ lying on top of some Common Reed alongside in the vicinity of some thistles. The leaves seem to suggest that it has been constructed by a Harvest Mouse, but it consists almost entirely of thistle down, as you can see in this photo of the ‘nest’ broken open:
Is it a Harvest Mouse nest? I need to show it to someone else to confirm that or otherwise.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Chandos Road, Ampthill

Carole screamed and quickly pulled her legs up onto the sofa when this spider suddenly ran across the living room carpet in front of her.

I find identifying spiders quite a challenge, but this is probably the female Giant House Spider (Tegenaria gigantea) or at least a Tegenaria sp. (the species are not easy to separate out by photo). Those jaws look pretty fiercesome, but the bite is not supposed to be able to pierce the skin of the likes of you and me. I have picked these up at various times but, between you and me, I do feel more than a little apprehensive when doing so!

According to Wikipedia, this species used to hold the record for the top spider speed, reaching 9.73 feet per second (2.97 metres per second) at full whack!

At Carole's insistence, this one ended up in the front garden (using a large glass and piece of card!), but I usually leave them to wander around and hoover up the invertebrate life that we don't see!

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Steppingley Area

An interesting drive around the Steppingley area with the following sightings:

4.40am - Large Badger running along the road by the Eversholt cricket pitch.
4.51am - Barn Owl close to Milton Bryan.
5am - Great views of a Badger (presumably the same one as above) on the road by Eversholt cricket pitch, together with 3 Rabbits.
5.16am - Brown Hare, a number of Rabbits, and a covey of Red-legged Partridges in field close to Steppingley.
5.21am - Female Muntjac in the verge close to Steppingley.

When you go out at night you just never know what you're going to see. I was really surprised only to come across one deer, though another larger unidentified deer crossed the road in the distance when I was looking at the Muntjac. The Badger sighting was a real bonus - I'm surprised I haven't seen more during my nocturnal wanderings!

Saturday, October 9, 2010

Milton Bryan

This Hedgehog was wandering about on the road that runs through Milton Bryan just after 5am this morning. It's sporting some 6,000 spines and probably harbouring some 500 fleas! This one was looking very healthy - it will be looking to hibernate for the winter in a few weeks time. It's good to see a Hedgehog in this area where there are a number of Badgers. I'm convinced that there are a lot less Hedgehogs around because there are a lot more Badgers around!

I'm hoping to get out and about again in the early hours of tomorrow morning....before joining my eldest son for the Japanese Grand Prix at 6am!

Sunday, October 3, 2010

Steppingley area

My mind continues to be exercised and so I went for a much needed walk this afternoon to clear my head. My choice of location was a local wood, which I enjoyed wandering round in the midst of a strong breeze.
There were fungi everywhere including club fungi. I think that this is Wrinkled Club….

…but I’ve no idea what this species of coral fungus is!

Mammals seen included a male Muntjac, Rabbit and 2 Grey Squirrels.

There are also Fallow Deer around though, these droppings being characteristically pointed at one end and indented at the other.

And this Badger sett was interesting. It looks like the Badger is a bit of an architect!

This area is a part of the Greensand Ridge which means that there is a lot of sandstone around. This nondescript-looking block holds a secret, the two separate parts revealing this:
Any ideas?


Our Geology Recorder, Martin Whiteley, has furnished me with the following information:

"What you've found are ironstone concretions within a block of Woburn Sands Formation sandstone (otherwise known as the Lower Greensand). These concretions are very common and probably form as the loose sand grains start to become compacted and de-watered as they are progressively buried beneath the sea floor after deposition.

Iron-rich fluids pass through the sand grains and locally precipitate into a wide variety of circular and elliptical forms. The iron-rich 'rinds' are usually dark brown or purple in colour and may enclose sand grains that are less well cemented than those elsewhere in the rock. Some concretions closely resemble burrows that were formed by sea floor dwelling animals such as crustaceans when the sandstone was being deposited, and in these cases it seems as if the iron-rich fluids were preferentially deposited in the lining of the old burrows.

The precise reason why iron is deposited in such curious forms is not really known, but variations in the permeability of the enclosing sediment and the chemical composition of the migrating fluids are probably key."