Monday, 28 November 2011

What dog?

Some time ago someone pointed out the dog’s tooth lichen to me and explained that the white pointy bits were similar to dog’s teeth. I’ve just read somewhere on the web that it’s the brown bits that resemble dog’s teeth. Neither look very much like the teeth inside our Collie’s mouth.

Back in the middle ages the lichen was used as a treatment for rabies – so they say.

Sunday, 27 November 2011

Coming soon - no. 41

A marine theme with articles on seals, sea slugs and smelt plus seabird tracking, sustainable mussel dredging and bristleworms. Also in this edition an introduction to the mysterious world of slime moulds and Cwm Idwal as seen through the eyes of its warden.

The stunning front cover titled 'Bass in the Kelp' was kindly provided by David Miller. Limited edition prints, signed and numbered by the artist, are available:
01994 453545.

Friday, 25 November 2011

Badgers chilling out

There’s a patch of flat ground by the badger sett where the grass is all trampled down. So I put out my night vision camera this week and now know that it’s being used as a wrestling ring. At the end of their session the badgers engaged in some mutual grooming before serious scratching and then retiring to bed.

And this has to be the funniest clip which reminds me of Baloo the Bear teaching Mowgli the finer points of good scratching.

It’s not a bog!

I had the pleasure of a guided tour around Cors Erddreiniog which is also known as Cae Gwyn or White Field on account of the marl. This nougat-looking malleable substance is calcium carbonate, deposited by lime-rich springs coursing through the fens. 

It’s looking a real mess at the moment as 25,000 tonnes of top soil is being scraped off the top of an area about the size of 8 or 9 football pitches. All part of a much larger project to restore the Anglesey & Llŷn Fens which is a LIFE project with £3.5 million of European funding.

If you’re chatting with members of the project team don’t say that’s a lot to spend on a bog – they’ll soon put you right and point out the difference between a fen and a bog. Bogs fill from the top whilst fens fill from below.

You can hear the story on Country Focus (Radio Wales, 27th November) or see the action in this short film below.

Wednesday, 23 November 2011

Mammal Society – the day we went to Bangor

It’s normal to hold meetings in London but this autumn (17th November) the society experimented with collaborating on a regional seminar.  The venue was Bangor, ‘dinas dysgu’ or ‘city of learning’, in the Brambell Building with its natural history museum making an excellent area for serving refreshments. On the ground local organisation was by the Snowdonia Mammal Group and more than 120 people attended the conference from all over UK.  

Derek Yalden (President) gave the first talk, an update on our knowledge of brown hares and how they are faring. It seems not so well. Surveys at the beginning and end of the 1990s showed a disappointing decline despite the introduction of ‘set aside’. I think Derek said he used to see 2 or 3 a day on average in the 1980s but nowadays it’s down to just 1.

Our 2nd speaker was Penny Lewns with a ‘reasons to be cheerful’ talk about badgers and an overview of the work she and her partner have done by way of badger mitigation. There were some interesting photos of artificial setts under construction with an analysis of how successful they had been.

Before our excellent lunch amongst the skeletons in the museum we split into 5 workshops and I joined the ‘wildlife film making’ workshop with Geoff Garside. There’s a lot more to it than point and click with a camcorder. I walked away feeling very inspired (brilliant footage of stoats playing on the Conwy estuary, more photogenic than meerkats!) but a bit in awe of how good you’ve got to be. The sad conclusion was the comparative lack of producer or investor  interest in UK as opposed to exotic species. I’m told the other workshops were also good.

The afternoon session was opened by Jack Grasse and his totally black slide – it had something to do with our collective knowledge of dormice not so long ago. It’s not just about surveying hazel nuts and broadleaf. Jack gave a graphic (great facial expressions) description of how to age an old nutshell. What do they eat in conifers? Is it sap and invertebrates? We just don’t know yet, but maybe the MISE project will help.

Anita Glover from Leeds University described the arrival of Alcathoe’s Bat in the UK. In April 2010 it was confirmed in Sussex and 350 km away in Yorkshire. It was first described in Greece in 2001. Alcathoe? She was a young woman in Greek mythology who ... ‘while the other women and maidens were revelling and ranging over the mountains in Bacchic joy, these two sisters alone remained at home, devoting themselves to their usual occupations, and thus profaning the days sacred to the god. Dionysus punished them by changing them into bats’. How widespread are they in UK and when did they really arrive?

Kate Williamson described how she, Chris Hall and Sam Dyer had piloted hedgehog survey techniques with tracking tunnels. In the middle of the tunnel is an ‘inkpad’ to cover the soles of the feet and make tracks.  The team found that black powder paint (not easy to find these days) mixed with oil was successful, maintaining tackiness for about 6 days. Hot dogs were used to entice subjects into the tunnel and a motion detector camera showed that the local cat was very partial to these! The pilot seems to have worked well but be prepared for cattle to disrupt tunnels.

Chris Hall spoke about surveying for coastal otters across the coastline of Llŷn and Snowdonia. 22 locations of 1 km² were chosen, each with a flow of freshwater. All showed positive in the course of 12 months when surveys in September and May were combined. Working with volunteers can be very successful but you need to control them! Bill and Mandi Taylor (the unsung heroes) were commended for outstanding contributions to these and other surveys.

Pete Turner from Waterford Institute gave the final talk about the use of DNA analysis to identify individual otters. At the time of his talk DNA patterns had been taken from 86 of the 123 spraints from the Llŷn coastal otter survey in 2011. Of these spraints 79 were from females and 7 (8%) were from males.  Do females mark more than males? Analysis so far, from out of the above, has identified 19 different individual otters.

And finally it was the raffle. A great day out and I was particularly pleased that 3 of the delegates signed up to become direct debit subscribers of Natur Cymru! And here are 30 seconds from the day:

Tuesday, 22 November 2011

It’s all happening at the zoo - harvest mice too

25 of us descended upon Chester Zoo for a training session to survey for harvest mice. I was pleasantly surprised that local conservation work ranks so high on the zoo’s priorities – it’s not all about the exotic, we need to look after the natives too. “Conservation starts at home!” My 50 year old memories of the zoo are elephants and my Mum warning me not to fall into the polar bear pit.

Training was delivered by Sarah Bird (Biodiversity Officer) and Paul Hill, freelance ecologist with experience of captive rearing harvest mice. The event was commissioned by the Mammals In a Sustainable Environment Project (MISE) to grow capability for identification of harvest mice in Wales. From our local records centres we have a total of just 60 records, most of which are old, with only 10 being recorded in the last decade. Surely this has got to be an under recording or is it a catastrophe? 

Some years ago the zoo arranged a reintroduction of harvest mice on fields alongside a canal. We began our training event at this site unloading 20 traps which revealed loads of voles (field and bank) and some wood mice but not what we were looking for. Our second exercise was to search through the undergrowth for the distinctive nests, balls of woven vegetation made mainly with  leaves split lengthways, lashed together without being severed from the plant. 15 minutes later we found our first example, neatly built around the supporting trunks / main stems of a few reeds. Once we got our eye in there was no stopping us and a further 4 were found before returning to our lecture theatre.

We were shown some brilliant ARKive footage to bring the subjects to life. See this as an example: From this link you can navigate to lots more films of harvest mice and all other species. What a fantastic resource!

The characteristics and lifecycle were explained. Widespread distribution from UK to Japan but absent from Ireland! Prehensile tails a very distinctive feature acting as a 5th limb. Very small size, just 4 to 6 grams, a third or a quarter the size of a field vole. Average life expectancy 6 months. Prolific breeders but 95% mortality in winter, mainly February.

The supposition is that they are in decline due to our changing farming practices but we don’t have much data to confirm or deny this. Thanks to MISE and Chester Zoo we are now going to get a fuller picture of what’s happening in Wales. If you’d like to join in please contact the MISE project website.

Here’s a short film of our training day: 

PS .... the polar bears have gone, their pit has been covered with a net and turned into an aviary.

Friday, 18 November 2011

Red Admirals in Autumn

One of the striking sights around the end of October was seeing Red Admirals taking nectar from ivy flowers along hedgerows and on trees, when all other butterflies had disappeared for the winter.

Traditionally this species was thought of as a migrant, reaching us from N Africa and the Med in late May or June, but being unable to successfully hibernate (as a butterfly) with us. This seems to be changing, and surely these very late ones are intending to hibernate here in Wales.

If you see any Red Ads in Wales from November onwards, please pass your records on to who has found the species over-wintering on Lleyn and Anglesey. The latest Butterfly Conservation North Wales newsletter has an item from Ray.

Friday, 4 November 2011

Slime Moulds at Loggerheads

Last Sunday I was very privileged to meet up with Bruce Ing the expert on slime moulds. In an interview for the Radio Wales Country Focus programme (Sunday 6th November 07:00), he explained that they were neither slimy nor moulds. During the walk around Loggerheads Country Park, appropriately near Mold, Bruce found several species and explained the lifecycle of these beautiful organisms. Although they share similar characteristics to fungi they are very different and in a class of their own.

Now is a good time of year to see them as they emerge to spore – some are tiny and difficult to spot although Brefeldia maxima (they don’t have English or Welsh names) is quite easy. It’s the largest of the species and has been seen at Loggerheads up to a square metre in size looking like a bucket of cold porridge eventually turning to a pile of black soot.  

Typically they are found on decaying wood, but it’s not the slime moulds that cause the wood to rot, that’s the bacteria which they feed on.

I was truly amazed with the wondrous specimens, or pyramids of amoebas, which we saw through a hand lens and intrigued by their bizarre lifecycle. For the sake of the interview I had to ask the ‘so what’ question. Bruce was well rehearsed in his response, with benefits for both agriculture and medicine, but I particularly liked its potential for treating ulcerous conditions caused by a bacteria which can’t be sorted by current anti-biotics. ‘Maybe we can develop a slime mould that will eat the bacteria. It’s difficult to develop immunity from something that’s eating you. The challenge will be making sure it doesn’t go on to eat the patient.’
A type of Physarum

If you want to learn more about the subject read Bruce's article in Natur Cymru due out December 2011. His book "The Myxomycetes of Britian and Ireland - An Identification Handbook" is out of print but the good news is that it is being republished in 2012 with some additional content.