Thursday, September 30, 2010

Steppingley-Woburn Road

Polecat….at last!!! It wasn’t the best view, and may not be accepted, but I’m as convinced as I can be given the evidence.

I’ve got a lot on my mind at the moment and found myself lying in bed awake in the early hours. After a while I got up and wandered around downstairs before deciding to go for a drive along my favourite stretch of road between Steppingley & Woburn. As I drove along, Rabbits jumped from the road and up onto the verge as if they’d been given an electric shock! A female Muntjac browsed on the verge and a Chinese Water Deer disappeared into the hedgerow. I drove through the Woburn Deer Park just before 4am, a surreal experience as deer loomed up out of the mist.

Just after 4.15am I was driving slowly past the entrance to Wakes End Farm when I suddenly noticed the sinuous body of a large mustelid disappearing into the long grass of the verge alongside Kingshoe Wood….just a few metres away from me. Frustratingly, I could see everything clearly…except for the head! But the size, colour (a mixture of dark & pale in the full-beam) and location all shouted out “Polecat”! The only other possibility is American Mink, but this would have appeared more uniformly dark in colour.

Over the next ¾ hour or so, I drove up and down this stretch of road a number of times, but had no further encounters with this enigmatic animal. What I did see, though, was another Muntjac and two female Fallow Deer. At one point, I had one of the Fallow Deer standing right next to the car, and continued to come across them several times during my passes, though they would usually wander slowly into the hedgerow and out of sight each time.

I remain determined to get a really good view of a Bedfordshire Polecat, including the unique bandit-mask face. Today's early morning experience was another encouragement to keep trying!

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Maulden Wood

Only 8 of us gathered in the sunshine for this morning's BNHS Small-mammal trapping session at Maulden Wood, led by Richard Lawrence. 14 traps had been set overnight, and we recorded 1 Pygmy Shrew, 2 Common Shrews, 2 Wood Mice, and this Bank Vole, nestling in the palm of Richard's hand.

There were plenty of fungi species around. I love the beautiful contrast of red and white on this Fly Agaric which will be open soon.

Recently, I also found these strange fungi in a roadside hedgerow in the Silsoe area. They look like the remnants of some species of Earth Star, but I can't work out which one. Any ideas?

Friday, September 17, 2010


This afternoon I joined David Anderson to check some Dormouse boxes in the Studham area. David kindly invited me to accompany him in anticipation of encountering my first live Edible Dormouse. It turned out to be quite a memorable experience....

After checking a number of boxes and finding them empty apart from the odd bird's nest, it was beginning to look as if my hopes wouldn't be realised but then, as David tapped a box in the midst of a young Hazel shrub, we heard the distinctive chuntering sounds of an Edible Dormouse! My excitement grew as we released the box and emptied its contents into the large plastic bag and….hey presto:

Fantastic!! We managed to get the animal into a plastic jar where we spent a few minutes examining it. You can make out some of the classic features: the large black eyes, whiskers and bushy tail.

Releasing the Edible Dormouse from its temporary captivity, David warned me to stand back...

...suddenly, everything went awry and mayhem ensued as the animal ran out of the jar, scampered over to David and disappeared up his trouser leg!!!!!! This all happened in the blink of an eye. David leapt back in alarm, clutching his trousers tightly below the knee (good job he didn’t react more slowly!) and, not being a journalist, I dropped the camera and ran over to help him, feeling quite helpless it has to be said!

David was now showing remarkable restraint and gradually squeezing the Edible Dormouse back down his trouser leg. Suddenly it reappeared and, alarmingly, bounded straight towards me, resulting in an impromptu and desperate dance in an effort to avoid the same fate!

Fortunately, it obviously realised that there must be easier trees to climb, turned sharply about, ran across the path and disappeared behind a young Holly tree where, approaching slowly and peering round with some trepidation, we found that it had disappeared into thin air!

This is one encounter that I’m never going to forget….and I don’t think David will, either. There were a few scratches on David’s lower leg, but it could have been so much worse, and we were able to laugh about it. I have to say that it was more of an adrenaline rush than any of the rides at Alton Towers!

A few boxes further on we found more signs of Edible Dormouse activity with these 'burrs' and nibbled Beech-nuts!

[Note: In recent years, David has recorded several Edible Dormice present in these boxes early in the Autumn. They are all juveniles which have become independent and found that they can squeeze through the holes. An adult would be too big to do this. This is the only place in the country where Edible Dormice are using Dormouse boxes. There used to be Hazel Dormice present in the wood we were surveying, but they haven’t been recorded for some years, most probably having been displaced by their larger cousins]


I’ve been so busy these past few weeks that I haven’t been out into the countryside at all and, as a consequence, I’m going a bit stir-crazy! But a phone call early yesterday evening led to my 32nd Bedfordshire mammal species of the year….
….a juvenile House Mouse. Sue Raven, a good friend who lives close by and works for the Greensand Trust, first encountered the mouse in her living room a couple of days ago and, consequently, set 4 Longworth Traps around the skirting boards. But she needn’t have bothered…encountering this sorry-looking individual crouching on her carpet yesterday. It’s obviously unwell, refusing to even nibble that tasty-looking block of chocolate, and Sue reckons that it may have consumed some poison put down by other residents in the building.

I’m surprised that it’s taken me this long to add House Mouse to this year’s list – it’s not for want of trying, after all, as readers of this blog will know.

The Latin name for the House Mouse is Mus domesticus. The Roman poet, Horace, called it ridiculus mus, but ridiculus mus has had the last laugh: after the likes of you and me, Mus domesticus is the world’s most widely-distributed mammal!

When I spent a year working as a pre-college student on the dairy unit at Nottingham University’s School of Agriculture at Sutton Bonington, I lived in a tiny cottage – called Lit Lun! – which had a resident population of House Mice that would scamper around the property. Falling asleep in the armchair after milking one morning, I awoke to find a little House Mouse sat on the arm looking at me quizzically!

Great memories!

Saturday, September 11, 2010


If you’re a fan of Nirvana, you may be familiar with this plant which, in Bedfordshire, is only found on one small patch in the Clophill area. It’s a sprig of Pennyroyal, the subject of the song Pennyroyal Tea, written by Kurt Cobain, the title alluding to its abortifacient properties. It’s a depressing song and featured on the band’s last album, In Utero.

It’s a shame that such a beautiful plant is known everywhere primarily for its poisonous properties. The fragrance is beautiful and one of my favourites!

[Photo credit: BiologyProjectWiki]

I’ve read a lot about scent recently. The September edition of Eureka in The Times featured an article on 'bioboundaries' and the work of scientists seeking to identify the volatile compounds in Africa’s Wild Dog urine that stop rival packs from entering their domain. Dr John ‘Tico’ McNutt, working in Botswana, comments: “If we could identify (and synthesise) the chemical components that signal residence and territoriality to Wild Dogs, we could provide residents that have no neighbours (at the edges of wildlife areas, for example) with ‘virtual neighbours’ and in so doing, decrease the extent of conflict these endangered species encounter in areas where they can cause problems for farmers.”

Then, I’ve just finished reading Philippa Forrester’s wonderful book, The River. It’s the story of Philippa’s relationship with the wildlife cameraman Charlie Hamilton James and the early days at their cottage alongside the River Tipple in the West Country. It wasn’t long before they discovered Otters on the river and set out to film them, succeeding to the point where a mother and her two cubs would regularly swim right past Charlie on their way along the river.

But one evening their behaviour changed completely and they no longer wanted anything to do with him at all. This happened for a while, and an examination of the animals’ prints revealed that rather than pass Charlie, the mother was leading her cubs out of the river into the surrounding fields and right round him, entering the water again further downriver where it was safe.

Finally, following a bath one night, Charlie realised what the problem was. I’ll let Philippa relate what happened:
Half an hour later there was a lot of yelling from the bathroom. I made my way upstairs wondering what had happened. Had he got his toe stuck in the tap? Had we run out of toilet roll? Was there an otter in the bath? Had he suddenly realised how big the hole in the ozone layer was? In the bathroom I waved my way through a fog of deodorant. What with that and the chilli smoke from the night before, my lungs were beginning to feel the strain.
‘Smell this.’
‘I can’t do anything but. This isn’t good for you or the ozone layer, you know.’
‘No, smell it. Really smell it.’
‘I can. It’s horrible.’
‘Well, it is. It’s too much.’
‘Does it smell familiar?’
‘I don’t know. It’s a bit like oranges. Is this the one you normally wear?’
‘Hah! Fantastic!’ He had lost it. I was going to have to call someone. The fog in the bathroom was becoming thicker.
‘What colour is the bottle normally?’
‘I don’t know, darling.’ I couldn’t see what he was getting at.
‘I’ve changed my deodorant!’ His grin was now inane, the glint in his eyes positively insane. All I could think of was how to get him out of the bathroom and away from the razors. My mind began to buzz, my throat was dry from the deodorant powder blocking up the pores, and all I could smell was musky oranges. I couldn’t swallow any more. And then, finally, I caught up.
‘You’ve changed your deodorant!’ My inane grin matched his. ‘Surely that couldn’t be it.’
‘I bet you any money it is. I’m not wearing any from now on.’
I’m probably the only girlfriend I know who would receive that kind of information with delight.
Sure enough, that night Charlie took care to shower again before he went out, he used no deodorant and the otters immediately returned to normal. They dawdled past him as he filmed them while standing in the river. Evidently they recognised is unadulterated smell as belonging to someone who meant no threat. They were probably grateful for his BO, it saved them a lot of time and trouble trekking across paddocks!’

There’s a real lesson here for any enthusiastic wildlife watchers!!

Friday, September 3, 2010


I placed a number of Longworth traps in various nooks and crannies around Maxine’s amazing garden last night.

4 Wood Mice turned up, including this juvenile.

And we caught 2 Common Shrews from opposite ends of the garden. This one shows the red tips to the teeth which are found in our 3 mainland species: Common Shrew, Pygmy Shrew and Water Shrew. You can find the Lesser White-toothed Shrew in the Scilly Isles, and the Channel Islands of Jersey & Sark, whereas the Greater White-toothed Shrew is found on Guernsey, Alderney & Herm!

This dead Weasel shows just how attractive the small mammal community in Maxine’s garden are!

Thursday, September 2, 2010


This morning, I met up with Katharine from the Wildlife Trust and we conducted a Water Vole survey in the Potton area. It was great to be able to confirm the presence of these special creatures. Other highlights were a Pike in the stream, and the presence of fresh Otter spraint on a rock.

We found a number of these small piles, consisting of lengths of the surrounding vegetation. This photo could, conceivably, be the work of a Field Vole, which engages in similar behaviour, but in many of the feeding areas the vegetation was much larger and coarser, indicative of Water Voles.

Droppings are a giveaway, though we didn't find any obvious built-up 'latrines' that are typical of Water Voles and used to scent-mark territories.

And here's a hole that's obviously well-used. Other holes were seen below the waterline.

Nearer home, this Grey Squirrel had a soft spot for blackberries!

The Alameda, Ampthill

It's strange how the mind makes connections - the blue, yellow and green colours on this impressive Lime Hawkmoth caterpillar reminded me of something completely different!