Sunday, 6 January 2019

The Inner Life of Animals by Peter Wohlleben

One of my Christmas present last year was the delightful book, The Inner Life of Animals of a Hidden World by Peter Wohlleben. Having just completed it I thought I would give you a quick review.
The book is a charming collection of thoughts and musings on animal behaviour, much like this blog is. Over a series of 50 short chapters Peter explores the inner mind of animals. He tackles ideas on emotions animals feel, pain, loss. How intelligent species can be and what our relationship is with them,

He approaches our connection to nature in a pragmatic way acknowledging the use of some animals for food and others as being unsuitable. He questions certain assumptions and challenges anthropomorphism in a similar way that I do. He shows that animals have feelings and intellects as equally complex but it would be foolish to use our on experiences to judge theirs and in doing so believe we can understand their motivation. In fact if there is one single cohesive message in the book it is the analysis of the interplay between  instinct and choice, and I m unsure Peter actually reaches a conclusion on which is supreme.

The book is easy to read. The perfect size for picking up and dipping into but with enough charm and joy to keep you turning the pages for hour after hour if desired. What made the book enjoyable for me was the setting. Peter is a land owner and forester in Germany and so the wildlife he includes is more diverse than our own. In effect the range of animals he relates to our what would once what Great Britain would have been had. The species mix is familiar enough not to be jarring and exotic enough to be enticing. It allows the book to be a journey into a new physical world as well as an inner mental one.

Some people may wish for a more scientific analysis of the mind of animals. Peter does evidence his work with some studies but most points come from anecdotes and personal experiences. This does not devalue his work at all, he is a knowledgeable and engaging guide to the wild and only a fool would not listen to someone of such experience and there are plenty of books out there with neurological diagrams and statistically tested conclusions but none of them will be written with the charm that Peter does.

Tuesday, 1 January 2019

2018 - A year in Review

Well there we go 2018 is gone and 2019 is upon us and what a year it was.

This year saw the completion of 15 years of surveys on my patch at the Saxon Mill. Sadly much of the year was lost when the bridge was taken out and left me unable to access the patch. I was able to get some access once work started and meant that I only lost 3 months survey data although this was the busiest time, summer, meaning my nest records, butterfly and dragonfly numbers were down.

Over the year I recorded only 49 species of birds, mainly due to me not being able to record the summer visitors, 2 butterfly species, 3 dragonfly species 3 mammal species and 1 reptile species. Of course the hands down highlight was the Otter sighting on my land in early December.

Speaking of which, talk about two coming along at the same time I saw a second otter on the Avon this time behind Tescos heading towards St Nicholas Park. This one stayed around a bit longer and I was able to really watch the movements and the way the bubbles leave a trail when it swam under water. This animal  seemed smaller than the one I saw at the mill possibly a female or sub-adult. It was also more cautious of me.

On the 31st December my long term camera trap completed its first year in its new location. In its time it was activated 3328 times over the 12 months. New species to be recorded included the Hedgehog and Woodcock. In fact the woodcock was quite active early in the year.

The most frequent observation in order is:

430 - Fox. I now know there is a Juvenile, Half-Tail, No Tail and Full tail. 4 individuals using the site.
415 - Grey Squirrel
388 - Blackbird
246 - Wood Mouse
146 - Song Thrush
142 - Badger
121 - Muntjac

Most interesting in terms of camera sightings was watching the Fix Cub grow up and note the rise in Roe Deer being seen more frequently and in greater numbers.
In fact the most recent sighting was off a Buck with its horns just starting to grow.

Once I have had time to process the data pretty graphs will follow.

Here is hoping 2019 is going to be as exciting and rewarding.

Sunday, 16 December 2018

The 16 year wait is over!

One of Britain's most enigmatic and elusive native mammals is the Otter. I have longed to see one in the world right from childhood. In fact, funny story, as a very young child, perhaps 11 years old we went on a school trip to St Nicholas Park in Warwick. Whilst the others played on the climbing frames I sat on my own and watched the tiny stream that runs from the tearooms to the river for an otter. In my naivety I  believed it to be perfect for them in actual fact it was two shallow, too busy and too man made to ever be of interest to an otter. Since then I have looked for the in Wales and more so on my patch of the Avon after the caretaker of the Saxon Mill told me had seen one some 10 years ago.

Today it finally happened. I was late for my usual visit and I had just crossed the first bridge, when what I assumed was a dog at first caught my eye. It paused on the cobbles before the second bridge and both, startled, looked at each other. We actually made eye contact before it slipped into the backwater by the main Mill Pond. Excitedly I stowed my notebook and pulled out my camera. It suddenly appeared at the edge of the Mill Pond. It was like a ghost, it hardly made a ripple. Again we made eye contact and this time I had my camera in hand.

Amazingly it seemed just as interested in me. I think it was curious about the camera as it began to swim closer for a better look. It was safe in the water now and obviously more confident. 

Once its curiosity was sated, which was perhaps only in a matter of seconds it just ducked below the water and was gone.

It was a remarkable encounter. On land it seemed quite large suggesting it was a dog Otter. Its fur was slicked back and deep brown and it had the arched back gait which is familiar for the species. In the water it was silent and graceful. I was able to see the sensitive whiskers, bright beady eyes, full of enquiry, tiny flap like ears and strong rudder tail. This is without the best Christmas present I could have asked for. (Sorry everybody - you have got to go a long way to beat this on the 25th)

Sunday, 18 November 2018

Godfray and the Cull

It has long been an approach of government to publish bad news amongst worse news or at least use the smokescreen of a major event to smuggle out news. Five days ago, the Government published the results of the Godfray Report, an investigation into the efficacy of the Badger Cull in England. Sadly, the findings of this report did not garner the news time it deserved due to the ongoing development of Brexit.

The BBC at least ran a short piece on the findings, but anyone not already involved in the debate could easily have missed it. So, what did the report say and what were its aims?
Sir Charles Godfray is a population biologist who was commissioned by Michael Gove, the Environment Secretary, to review the Government’s 25-year Bovine TB strategy with a view to gaining a better insight into planning the next step in the aim to eradicate TB by 2038. Godfray was walking a fine line in his report and when I saw him interviewed, I felt him choosing his words very carefully. The thrust of his findings was that whilst Badgers do transmit bovine TB to cattle and are part of the problem the farming industry must take more responsibility for biosecurity and develop safer trading practices. This may not sound like much but Godfray is providing more evidence that whilst there is a reservoir of TB in the wildlife the primary transmission vector is between cattle themselves.

True the culling has had a modest effect, modest is the key word the report uses. Its obvious, if you kill any reservoir of the infection then there will be some effect, however we know that the perturbation effect reduces this benefit and does not stop reinfection from cattle.
Even I, an environmentalist understands that the fight against TB is a holistic one. It needs many parts for it to work. You must tackle the reservoir in the wildlife as much as the reservoir in the stock. What has happened so far is an over emphasis on the wildlife and the use of culls rather than vaccination. Farmers are easily demonised in this response and I certainly get angry with the NFU’s blinkered view, but this ire needs to be tempered by the realisation that farmers are business men and that this needs an element of business behind the decisions. Farmers need to be rewarded for good biosecurity and compensated for loses. Biosecurity needs a legislative footing and powers to prosecute more easily alongside the assistance for those that are trying. Because of these points I applaud Godfrays suggestion of an independent body for disease control, if the cull has taught us anything DEFRA, Natural England and the NFU have an inability for a coherent scientifically backed approach.

This report is a small but significant step in ending the cull and still moving towards TB free status, we just need to keep up the pressure. I would urge all interested to read the report and then contact you MP requesting that the cull be replaced by a vaccination programme, biosecurity is increased and that an independent body is established.

Saturday, 20 October 2018

Muntjacs abound

Whilst being a non-native deer species there is something endearing about this diminutive mammal. Small as a large dog these these oriental deer are widespread in the UK and a common sight on my trail cam.

They use the hedgerow as a dispersal conduit and can occasionally be seen foraging, in fact this past few weeks has seen a fair bit of activity of this species.

This first clip shows two interesting pieces of behaviour, it starts with the male becoming aware of something and then stamping his leg. This is an aggressive posture which he follows up with a bark like call. This continued for 13 minutes, I suspect it was a rival or perhaps more likely the Fox cub, the fox would register as a predator but its size and the size of the deer would not have meant the deer was under threat. The muntjac was just asserting himself, hes big and aggressive so leave me alone.

This week I actually got some views of a muntjac fawn. I saw a picture, as seen below that looked like a scene of family bliss -

You can see two adults and a tiny fawn perhaps only a week old, in fact the male pictured is not the father. Muntjac are able to breed all year round and the male has detected that the female is no receptive once more to mating. Video reveal him pursuing the female, smelling closely for receptiveness, this attention has spooked the fawn who dashes about in panic.

We next see the fawn and mother thankfully undisturbed again this morning.

Sunday, 16 September 2018

This weeks star - the Roe Deer

As you are aware the loss of the bridge has meant that I have only just been able to collect my camera and when I did I had over 2000 clips to analyse! I have finally finished ploughing through them and collating the information and I hope to be able to give you some insights in the next few posts especially regarding the presence of a Fox cub.

Today, however, I want to share with you several photos captured this week. They were taken at 11.10 am on the 11th September and show a young Roe Deer.

You can tell this is a young Roe Deer rather than a Muntjac for several reasons. Firstly the head lacks any of the correct markings, secondly, fur is of a different texture and colour. The muntjac has a more orangey colour and is smoother looking, in this case, the fur is coarser. Thirdly you can look at the ears, here the ears are more pointed and more upright whereas muntjac ears are rounder and stick out more from the side. Muntjacs are also shorter legged than this individual, lastly, there are diagnostic black spots on the rear legs.

It is also possible to tell that this is a young deer from its general appearance, the coat looks fresh but lighter than one would get in an adult, it is also possible to see faint white marks on the hin quarters when as a fawn it would have had spots. Last is the eye, juveniles generally have larger eyes in relation to their bodies, this is true for humans too. Eyes are proportionately larger at birth and it takes some time for an animal to 'grow into them'.

Sunday, 19 August 2018

Confessions of a Photographer

The post title says Confessions of a Photographer but I wouldn't really call myself a photographer. I am someone who dabbles in Wildlife Photography, I have taken some, in my opinion, good photos and photography is most definitely a hobby for me.

I enjoy being immersed in wildlife and I like the long-term value a nice picture of a wildlife experience can give you. That is why many of my blurry pictures of rare animals and birds can mean so much to me. They are by no means technical masterpieces but the capture a viewing.

I do of course try and take good photos and sometimes that takes a little work. Many professional photographers stage their work, and for me, that usually only involves removing stray twigs from eye line or where I hide. I am averse to heavy photoshop editing and will only ever crop, play with the light levels and perhaps do a little sharpening to an image.

In this particular case, I decided to make use of the fact that we are regularly getting Wood Mice visiting the garden to get a nice shot of a mouse. That nice shot is the one shown above. However, to achieve this shot I experimented with some staging.

At the moment the mice visit the bird table which isn't especially natural looking in aesthetic. So instead I built a stage. I used some wood to create a bridge between the table and the hedge and covered in natural material, moss, twigs, bark and brambles. I then baited this and waited for the mice to use it.

It took a little while for the mice to get used to the new bridge but pretty soon one ventured on and I got the shots. The two shots at the head of the post are the results, but even that still took time, I still had to compose correctly and focus right. Even now the focus of those pictures is a little out.

I make this post as a kind of warning of the shots you might see out there. People with more talent and time can create all manner of wonderful images with each tweak you lose a little of the naturalness and wonder. Some amazing photos are heavily photoshopped or even used stuffed animals. Of course, not all do this but it's important to be aware of the facts, modern technology has made photography achievable by all but it has also raised the possibility of erasing its veracity.

I am content with my limits, I want to see my subjects as natural as possible, I want to leave the animals with the option to take part, the ability to leave at any minute or to not even to show up. I also respect their right to peace and quiet. In this case, I waited only 20 minutes so as not to disturb them and to allow them to forage happily once I had a few shots in the can.

This was a fun experiment but do not expect me to roll out this for all shots, nature is best seen in its raw form.