Animals

Some small tragedy

Common Frog, Western Avenue, Bridge. Image © Copyright BridgeNature.org 2017.

Some small tragedy on Western Avenue
Walking home one night recently, I was turning the corner on Western Avenue when I spotted a frog sitting on the pavement opposite Saxon Lodge. Having my camera with me, I took a few pictures to record the event, then wondered if I should leave the frog where it was, or try to help it to a place of safety.

On a cold winter night a Common Frog would not be venturing out onto our streets, it would be hibernating in a found burrow, or under leaves; but as spring approaches and the night-time temperature rises above five degrees or so, frogs begin to come out foraging, or wandering in search of a lake or pond in which to meet a mate for a midnight rendezvous. There are one or two ponds in the back gardens along Western Avenue, but the road was not a good place for the frog to loiter.

Having made a decision to rescue it, I went home to get a bucket in which to transport the frog to somewhere more suitable: perhaps a spot down by the Nailbourne. But on my return it was no longer visible on the pavement, so I looked around for a while with a torch, only to find, to my horror, the body of a frog, dead and grotesquely flattened onto Western Avenue.

In the daylight of the morning, some children heading for school may have studied the squashed frog in the road with ghoulish curiosity; a hungry magpie may have eyed the corpse from a perch on a garden tree. For my part I felt a certain guilt: perhaps I could have done more. Some readers may feel the same; but in truth there are few in our busy modern world who would pause to mourn the passing of a Common Frog. Every year, on warm nights in spring, thousands of such deaths occur to frogs and toads on roads all over England, yet these sad tragedies, each the extinguishing of a little striving life, are considered of no consequence in our distracted and disinterested human realm.

 

Continuing an ugly tradition

Young Fox, Bekesbourne. Image © Copyright BridgeNature.org 2017.

Last weekend a local hunt group continued at least some semblance of the tradition of fox-hunting with a meet in Bishopsbourne. In olden times the hunt was often regarded as an elegant, jolly affair, but from the distance of a different moral perspective, in the cold light of a grey February morning in 2017, this tradition just evokes feelings of sadness.

Hunting with hounds is an ugly relic of our barbaric past and it has no place in modern countryside management: it has little to do with controlling fox numbers in the Britain of today. Historically it was a sport of the landowning elite who, rather than actually trying to exterminate foxes, retained coverts of trees and shrubs across their land for foxes to inhabit so that they could be hunted for fun. The sport became so popular that during the 19th century foxes were imported from Europe and openly sold at London’s Leadenhall Market in order to stock the English countryside where hunting took place.

For many years, foxes were effectively protected specifically for the hunt, despite the pleas of tenant farmers, shepherds and pheasant farmers who wanted them efficiently eradicated, not preserved for the amusement of their landlords. Sometimes farmers secretly killed foxes, but bizarrely this so called ‘Vulpicide’ was regarded as immoral by the landowning gentry because it diminished the number of foxes left for hunting. Controversy raged until, eventually, a compromise was achieved and farmers were paid compensation for any birds and lambs lost to the fox. Of course the reports of damage done would have been grossly exaggerated in order to claim more compensation from the wealthy landowners.

Today foxes account for about 1% of all poultry (1) and 1-2% of lambs (2) lost in open fields. Annual (pre-slaughter) lamb mortality from all causes, including disease and hypothermia is “thought to be 15-20%” (3), a vastly higher figure, although precise data is not collected.

For our previous article on foxes search for ‘fox’ in our search box

(1) Game Conservancy Trust figure
(2) 1% Game Conservancy Trust; 2% The Burns Report. See:
http://www.ifaw.org/sites/default/files/is%20the%20fox%20a%20pest.pdf
(3) Sheep Health and Welfare Report 2016/17

 

Badgers, blame and bovine TB

Badger, secret location, East Kent. The government’s badger cull has not reached Kent… yet! Image © Copyright BridgeNature.org 2016.

Bovine TB (b:TB or cattle tuberculosis) is a menace on the farm. If cattle contract it they must be slaughtered. For farmers who have spent many years breeding a herd this is a disaster, particularly as the disease tends to spread amongst animals in close proximity, meaning that sometimes an entire herd has to be destroyed.

For decades farmers, vets and environmentalists have argued about what causes the spread of bTB. Environmentalists say modern farming methods are to blame, insisting cattle aren’t checked properly before being transported to farms across the country. Others, including many farmers and the vets who earn a living treating their cattle, say badgers, which are known carriers of the disease, pass it on to livestock.

In recent years two hugely important trials have occurred out in the fields in the west of Britain. In a few English counties, a highly controversial government backed cull has attempted to kill vast numbers of badgers to see if bTB in cattle is reduced. About 15,000 have been killed so far and the pro cull lobby claims success, but many leading scientists and The Wildlife Trusts, suggest there is no basis for suggesting anything of the sort. In a joint statement the Badger Trust, Born Free Foundation, the RSPCA, and The Humane Society International make their view clear:

“there is no evidence that the current culls are reducing bovine TB in cattle” (1).

One surprising figure from an earlier test is that 83% of badgers culled in government trials 2002-2005 tested TB free” (2), yet in the culls of recent years the government has refused to allow testing of culled badgers to check if they actually had bTB. Furthermore, a panel of experts appointed by the government to assess the validity of the English badger cull was disbanded when they reported that the cull was both cruel and ineffective.

Meanwhile in Wales, where a cull was ruled out, a so called IAA Vaccination Programme has been vaccinating hundreds of Badgers against Bovine TB, so that they don’t get it and therefore can’t spread it to cattle. In tandem a more stringent bTB testing programme has been carried out in Welsh cattle herds.

Between July 2015 and July 2016 new bTB incidences in Welsh cattle fell by 19% (2) although more incidences were found in herds known to have had previous bTB infections. This suggests overall the two level programme is working: less herds are being infected, and better testing is finding more of the cattle which already have bTB. Vaccination is cheaper too, at about £700 per badger (3), while the cull is costing about £5-7,000 per badger(4). Nevertheless many Welsh farmers are insisting they want an English style badger cull. Such a call would seem to conflict with the scientific evidence.

To pass the disease directly to a cow, an infected badger would need to come within 1.5 metres of it, but new research by Prof Rosie Woodroffe and experts at the Zoological Society of London (5), in which they tracked 65,000 badger and cattle movements, shows that rather than coming into close contact with cattle, badgers actually avoid them. Only once in the entire study did a badger come within 10 metres of a cow, but most preferred to stay 50 metres away or more.

These new studies suggest that environmental factors may play a much more important role in bTB infections than has been realised. “The current tests for bTB in cattle are only 20-50% effective and one fifth of all bTB infections are only discovered when the animals go to slaughter” (6). These cattle are therefore likely to have been infecting pasture land, farmyards and a variety of common animals including hedgehogs, mice, moles, rats, sheep, goats, slugs and worms long before the disease was detected. Even when a bTb infection is found early in a cattle herd, the slurry and manure from these animals is not regarded as contaminated and often gets spread all over the farm. Professor Alastair MacMillan, ex Defra vet and Veterinary Adviser to the Humane Society International has advised:

The suggestion by some that TB is spread by frequent nose-to-nose contact between badgers and cattle has now been completely dismissed. It is much more likely that contamination by cattle of fields and yards by [TB bacteria] is the cause of repeated TB herd breakdownsIt’s clear that the government must divert the substantial resources being used needlessly to cull badgers and instead improve farmer education and biosecurity on farms”(7).

So, why is there a continued insistence amongst farmers and some members of the governmental scientific community that badgers are always to blame? Badgers are an easy target: they, like many wild animals, have been persecuted by cruel country folk for centuries, not because they cause any real harm, but because it’s a traditional ‘country sport’ to kill them. Could it be the very same thugs who are getting paid to kill badgers in the cull?

Britain’s farming industry is vital, it feeds the nation, it must succeed; but whatever the definitive cause of the spread of bTB turns out to be, we need an ethical, sustainable farming industry that works in harmony with the land, local communities and wildlife. The mass slaughter of thousands of healthy, uninfected badgers surely cannot be seen as a logical, ethical and humane solution to what is essentially a modern farming problem.

(1) Badger Trust, Born Free Foundation, RSPCA, Humane Society International, joint submission to DEFRA consultation, January 2017.
(2) Badger Trust figure
(3) Figure quoted by Caroline Lucas MP, Hansard 07 September 2016, Volume 614.
(4) Initial figure: £7,000, Final Report of the Independent Scientific Group on Cattle TB, June 2007; revised figure: £5,000, Caroline Lucas MP, Hansard 07 September 2016, Volume 614.
(5) Prof. R. Woodroffe, Ecology Letters, 4 Aug 2016,: Badgers prefer cattle pasture but avoid cattle: implications for bovine tuberculosis control
(6) Dr Monaghan MP. Sponsor of Commons EDM on Badger Cull. Hansard 07 September 2016, Volume 614.
(7) Quoted in The Guardian, Friday 5 August 2016.

Breaking the ice

Frozen puddles trap vital drinking water, Whitehill Wood, Bridge Parish. Image © Copyright BridgeNature.org 2016.

Deep in bleak mid-winter the crystalline patterns formed by ice in frozen puddles can be intriguing, and it’s not just children who like to pause and stoop to examine these strange frozen worlds at our feet. But the attention span of children is short, and often, when curiosity gets the better of them they will try to break the ice, either for the sheer naughty pleasure of doing so, or perhaps to discover what further mysteries lie in the murky water beneath the glassy surface. To considerate, responsible adults who have been brought up to respect our countryside, this deliberate vandalism can seem like sacrilege, the callous fracturing of Nature’s works of art, the spoiling of a virgin frozen world; but, if ever you find yourself in that frame of mind, think again, the breaking of the ice can be a godsend to wildlife yearning for a drink.

Just like us, birds, mammals, reptiles and insects of all kinds need water to drink and moisture to help them keep themselves clean, even in the winter. Out in the countryside, puddles are a precious source of water. Pot-hole puddles on country lanes provide a drink or a bath. Baths are important for drowning parasites in a bird’s feathers: blackbirds and starlings love a delousing bath. In the woods and fields the water-filled ruts left by tractors and 4X4s offer refreshment, nutrients and sometimes food like snails, nymphs and worms.

In the frozen world of winter, all such sources of water are vital for our wildlife. It really is a matter of life and death: thousands of our native birds will not survive through winter, either because of cold or starvation. In the famously cold winter of 1962-3 it was estimated that half of all British birds died (1), but in any of our colder winters up to 80% of some species, particularly smaller birds like wrens and long-tailed tits may die. Even in a normal year only 25% of Kingfishers are thought to make it through the winter (2).

The modern world has taken so much from Nature, so why not give our wildlife some help? Feeding birds in our gardens is important, providing our wild creatures with drinking water out in the countryside is absolutely vital, and this is often easily achieved as we saunter out on country walks admiring the beauty of the frost. Next time you see a puddle which has frozen across the top, go on, break the icy surface to expose the water underneath: you might just save a life.

HELP IN THE GARDEN TOO!
If you have a bird bath which freezes over, please refresh the water each day. In a small pond, leave a ping pong ball or two on the surface to stop it freezing over.

(1) The Independent, Thursday 28 January 2010. Experts fear count will reveal a deadly winter for birds.
(2) RSPB Figure

The myth of ‘The Balance of Nature’

Nature does not stand balanced like some perfectly poised dancer pirouetting on a bar. Little Egret, Bridge. 2016. Image © copyright BridgeNature.org 2016

“The idea of a balance of nature has been a dominant part of Western philosophy since before Aristotle, and it persists in the public imagination and even among some ecologists today. In fact Nature is not in balance, nor has it ever been at any stage in Earth’s history.”
John Kricher. ‘The Balance of Nature; ecology’s enduring myth.’

On 7 February 2017 we finally had to concede that the Nailbourne had dried up. Not a trickle ran in constant flow through Bridge. Since it is a bourne, an occasional stream, which leaks from fissures in the chalk beneath East Kent, this is not to be unexpected; but it spells disaster for our local wildlife and the precious ecosystem of a rare chalk stream. A rich and varied biodiversity nurtured by the cool springwater will be lost: a delicate, heirarchical food chain which was gradually establishing itself in the heart of our valley will break and fail. Many species will either die or move elsewhere.

It is a populist notion that such events are all part of what some people call the ‘Balance of Nature’. They are not. Balance implies a system of self-correction, a sustained position of equilibrium. This is not what happens in Nature. The natural world does not stand balanced like some perfectly poised dancer pirouetting on a bar; it reels and lurches from one disaster to another, like a confused boxer losing badly in a fight.

“Nature is not a balance, it is just one catastrophe after another!”
Professor Richard Dawkins

When a natural catastrophe occurs on a large scale in a meteor strike, a flood, a volcanic eruption, or, on a smaller scale, perhaps the drying up of a village pond or a local spring, there is destruction and there is death. This creates a vacuum in the natural world and Nature abhors a vacuum. Something, in a quest for survival, will fill it; this invariably will be some species of plant or creature which is more suited to the new environment. An opportunity arises, something seizes it, but this opportunism must not be confused with ‘balance’, for the state of things will now be different, the equilibrium has not somehow been restored. Things have changed and in consequence there may now be a new order in the food chain, a new king ruling the jungle. He will rule as long as the new conditions remain or until the next catastrophe arrives to topple him from his place. It’s a continuing struggle for survival in which each individual in each species fights for itself in the face of ever looming death. In the 3.5 billion year history of life on Earth, over 99% of all the species that ever lived here are thought to have become extinct, either because they just couldn’t live in the environment in which they found themselves, or because a new, more advanced or adapted species was able to out compete them. This is a process called ‘speciation’ and we modern humans may face it one day as did Neanderthal man who failed to compete with us.

Mother Nature is not of gentle mind, she is a violent and ruthless ruler in her empire of the sun. Her flowers bloom sublime, but don’t be confused by her apparent charm and her fondness for the young: she has no compassion. Her disasters appear random, but they are all a consequence of her brutal rule. There is an order in the chaos, but it is heartless, inequitable and cruel. Life on Earth staggers on, trying to navigate through constant adversity and change: ‘carpe diem’, seize the day and do your best to survive, but be assured your death will come and you won’t be calling it a balance when the reaper swings his scythe.

Sometimes we think we see Mother Nature as a beauty, dancing elegantly to illuminate our lives in the darkness of her universe. Her beauty, her dancing and even the colours of her dress are mere mirage; but the miracle, the sublime, spectacular miracle, is that she ever manages to stand at all. We must hope we never live long enough to know when she finally collapses and her empire turns to dust.

 

 

Footprints in the mud

The shape, size and sharp edges of this print suggest it is from a deer. (Ruler measures in centimeters). Image © copyright BridgeNature.org 2016.

This week BridgeNature.org received reports of unusual animal footprints on land within the Bridge and Bishopsbourne area, so a field visit was made to try to discover the identity of the animal which made the prints.

The field in question is unfenced, holds no livestock and has been ploughed, so the surface is very rough, but a path across it has been made smooth by the regular passing of walkers and it appears that ramblers of another kind have also used the path leaving their footprints as evidence.

The prints themselves present as a weathered and worn jumble of old and more recent indentations of different sizes and shapes, but essentially two shapes appear prevalent. The first shape is the smaller in size and features what we believe is the print of a cloven hoof, curving in a tight horseshoe shape with a gap at the front. This print has sharp, pointed edges. These features make it typical of a deer. The most obvious candidates to make such prints in this area would be the fallow deer which inhabit Kings Wood near Challock and are known to range across the woodland and open countryside at least as far as the A2 at Barham. Fallow deer are observed regularly in the summer on farmland near the Duck at Pett Bottom and we have received a confirmed report of a small deer of unidentified species in fields between Pett Bottom and Bishopsbourne. Other possible candidates for making the prints may be roe deer which live in the west of Kent and are known to be gradually moving east; but, as yet we have no confirmed sightings of them in this area.

Possible wild boar print? Image © copyright BridgeNature.org 2016.

The second type of prints appear bigger suggesting a larger animal of some kind. The foot imprint does not resemble the split horseshoe shape of the others, and the prints are less sharply defined. Are these the prints of large adult fallow deer, a different deer, or something else altogether?

One suggestion which has been put forward to us is that these may be the prints of wild boar. It is a possibility: wild boar do live in Kent and have been sighted in this district (actually in Bekesbourne) within the last six years or so. Wild boar have pig-like trotters which do not leave the sharp horseshoe shaped prints of deer: the impression left by boar is more like two slightly diverging toe shapes with curved edges and a rounded foot shape behind. This could fit with some of the prints in our field, although in soft mud we would expect to see evidence of dew claw prints behind the foot and there is little evidence of them. However, perhaps supporting the possibility of wild boar, two sets of tracks of these heavier footprints lead away from the relatively smooth path and set off over the ploughed field leaving deep, wide indentations in the earth suggestive of heavy creatures with feet covered in thick mud. This does not seem characteristic of deer.

What made these large prints? Image © copyright BridgeNature.org 2016.

Our mystery remains at least partially unsolved and we retain an open mind as to what creatures may have made all the footprints. In order to provide a possible answer in the future, we would very much welcome news of readers’ sightings of deer or wild boar in our area if and when they occur.

Detail of the prints above. This print from a heavier animal is much larger yet retains a split curve at the front. Image © copyright BridgeNature.org 2016.

Vermin over the hill

Wild Rabbit, Star Hill, Bridge. Image © copyright BridgeNature.org 2016.

Wild Rabbit, Star Hill, Bridge. Image © copyright BridgeNature.org 2016.

This week wild rabbits were culled using ferrets to unearth them on Star Hill in Bridge. “Quite right too,” some locals said, “they’re just vermin!”.

We often hear the term ‘vermin’ cast casually and disparagingly at certain animals, which are regarded with disdain, while others are treated with favour. So, what exactly is the definition of vermin, and what does it mean in consequential terms?

The Concise Oxford English Dictionary defines vermin as “Mammals and birds injurious to game, crops etc., e.g. foxes, weasels, rats, mice, moles, owls; noxious insects e.g. fleas, bugs, lice; parasitic worms or insects; (fig) vile persons”. It’s a very vague definition, which seems open to the inclusion of any creature which eats the crops in our fields, kills game birds before they can be shot in sport, or irritates us in some other way.

Across Britain that small OED list of so-called vermin has, at one time or another, been stretched to include: magpies, seagulls, crows, rooks, stoats, kingfishers, house sparrows, rabbits, deer, red squirrels, grey squirrels, pigeons, snakes, woodpigeons, kites, buzzards, frogs, eagles, geese, wild cats, domestic cats caught poaching, collared doves, ducks, jackdaws, rooks, jays, curlews, pole cats, lapwings, oystercatchers, choughs, dippers, water voles, hedgehogs, wolves, hawks, otters, bullfinches, hares, green woodpeckers, badgers and many other animals which today we would call wildlife.

A few of these creatures, like the wolf, the flea and the adder were obvious candidates for extermination in the survival instincts of our ancient ancestors, but many of the names on the list come from the Preservation of Grain Act of 1532, which ordered the public to take part in a mass killing of rural wildlife for the sake of preserving farm produce. Some animals, like woodpigeons, rats and rabbits clearly were legitimate threats to farm crops, but many others like lapwings, water voles and hedgehogs were killed simply because of ignorance about their lifestyles. In some cases the law was used as a cover for killing animals for superstitious reasons rather than for any real threat they posed to agriculture, and millions of other creatures were killed under the law because they were good to eat rather than because they caused any nuisance.

Masquerading as the eradication of vermin, this killing frenzy went on across Britain for many decades until, in the mid 18th century, it was stopped because of general alarm at the massive devastation done to our wildlife and countryside. By then, it was too late for some animals, and to this day their numbers have never recovered. However, a century later, with the burgeoning popularity of ‘country sports’ like hunting, shooting, fishing, badger baiting and hare coursing, the mass killing of so-called vermin had escalated again, and by the mid 19th century it was once more being conducted on an enormous scale until a series of animal protection acts were brought in to reduce the slaughter.

Young fox, Bekesbourne. Contrary to popular assumption foxes are not legally defined as vermin: if they cause a nuisance they can be shot or lethally injected by a vet, but cruel treatment to a fox constitutes a serious criminal offence. Image © copyright BridgeNature.org 2016.

Young fox, Bekesbourne. Contrary to popular assumption foxes are not legally defined as vermin: if they cause a nuisance they can be shot or lethally injected by a vet, but cruel treatment to a fox constitutes a serious criminal offence. Image © copyright BridgeNature.org 2016.

In British law there is no legal definition of vermin: it is not written in stone. Today, many of the animals which were once persecuted are now treasured and encouraged for the biodiversity they bring to our countryside. Even now this considered approach has its detractors. A lot of rural folk still have a list of vermin held firmly in mind and they seem to take a certain relish in having these creatures killed, but, before casually condoning the slaughter, everyone should know the answer to this question: how did these animals get onto their list of vermin? Was it because they pose a genuine threat to farming and social welfare; or because they spoil the fun of ‘country sports’; or because killing them is the fun of country sports; or because of tradition, confusion, ignorance and superstition?

Whatever our views on wildlife there is one creature which, over the centuries, has caused far more destruction and nuisance in our countryside than all the others put together: and we all know who it is…

*This article takes some general references from ‘Man and the Natural World: changing attitudes in England 1500-1800’, a seminal work by the author Keith Thomas; but we do not suggest any views or opinions expressed herein are necessarily shared by that author.

The Sussex in Kent

Sussex cattle, Bourne Park, Bishopsbourne, October 2016. Their 'mahogany red' colour glows in the evening sunlight. Image © copyright BridgeNature.org 2016.

Sussex cattle, Bourne Park, Bishopsbourne, October 2016. Their ‘mahogany red’ colour glows in the evening sunlight. Image © copyright BridgeNature.org 2016.

If, in the last six months or more, you have taken a stroll along Bourne Park Road heading from Bridge towards Bishopsbourne, you may have noticed some reddish coloured cattle in a field off to the right between the road and the Nailbourne. These are Sussex cattle, one of the most famous and reputable breeds of cattle in the world: their colour is described historically as mahogany red.

The Sussex originated on the Weald of Sussex, Surrey and Kent and it is directly descended from a breed of cattle which roamed in Anderida, the huge forest which stretched over those counties before and at the time of the Norman conquest in 1066. These cattle were of course a source of food, but through the centuries as they were farmed and bred they became notable also as a draught breed for ploughing and pulling carts and they were used extensively for that purpose. Today we may think of the horse as the primary working animal of our ancient past, but this is not so, for centuries it was the ox, and the ox of choice would, without doubt, have been a Sussex. On the Weald, the steep terrain meant that the use of oxen as the main draught animal continued much longer than in some other parts of the country. In his travelogue ‘A Tour of Great Britain’ written in 1724, Daniel Defoe tells us of an old lady on the Weald being driven to church in a carriage hauled by six Sussex oxen.

Sussex cattle, showing characteristic colour and shape with higher rear end than shoulders and a white switch to the tail. Image © copyright BridgeNature.org 2016.

Sussex cattle, showing characteristic colour and shape with higher rear end than shoulders and a white switch to the tail. Image © copyright BridgeNature.org 2016.

We do not think of the Kent and Sussex Weald as a forest area today because the woodland was felled in the early 18th century to provide timber for iron manufacturing during the industrial revolution. Sussex oxen were used as draught animals working in the forest and, to give an idea of the numbers of animals involved, Defoe, who was travelling through the area at the time, records teams of 22 Sussex oxen pulling each lumber cart.

The escarpments of the Weald meant that, once the forest had gone, large tracts of the land were not suitable for ploughing, so much of it was left as pasture. The Sussex continued to be prominent, primarily for beef production, although records show that in some parts of the Weald they were still used to haul ploughs right into the early 20th century.

In the last few days the Sussex cattle have been moved out of the field off Bourne Park Road; we do not know where they have gone to, although being beef cattle, we do know their ultimate fate.

Come Winter come Jack Snipe

Jack Snipe on the Nailbourne, Bishopsbourne. October 2016. Image © copyright BridgeNature.org 2016.

Jack Snipe on the Nailbourne, Bishopsbourne. October 2016. Image © copyright BridgeNature.org 2016.

Late October, Winter is on his way and temperatures have dropped along with the sun’s intensity. But, no matter how cold we may think our county is over the next few months, East Kent will not descend into the intense freeze of Scandinavia. Knowing this, as have his ancestors for generations, Jack Snipe has flown south to pass a more temperate Winter season here in southern England.

This happens every year, yet Jack Snipe and his sisters remain mysterious birds and no one really knows how many arrive to Winter here, although observers say that numbers may be diminishing. The birds paddle secretively, often alone at the water’s edge foraging for insects, snails and worms, and if they sense danger or the approach of a predator their tactic is to sit still, immobile as a pebble and almost impossible to see with the naked eye, so difficult are they to distinguish from the muddy stones and river debris around them. Yet, once an intruder breaches their imagined circle of safety, they take off into rapid flight, reaching for the sanctuary of the sky. In flight the birds assume a much more dynamic persona, ascending rapidly with beating wings curved like scythes arcing through the air and the white patches on the underside and tail more prominent.

Jack Snipe is the smallest member of the Snipe family, distinguished from the Common Snipe by its diminutive size and a shorter bill. It may have acquired its name because people thought it was the male Common Snipe, but in olden times the name Jack was also often used colloquially to indicate something or someone of a distinctive character or smaller size than the rest of the group. Its Latin name Lymnocryptes Minimus means ‘The smallest one hidden on the marsh’, which sums up this charming little bird rather well.

NB. Jack Snipes have not been seen along the Nailbourne since this article was written a few days ago, so it may be that those previously observed were just passing through.

Water for wildlife

Water tray, 9 am. A flower pot try is filled with water from a butt and placed in a shady corner. Image © copyright BridgeNature.org 2016

Water tray, 9.00 am: a large flower pot tray is filled with water from a butt and placed in a shady corner. Image © copyright BridgeNature.org 2016

According to wildlife experts, the single most significant thing that a garden owner can do to help wildlife is to provide a regular supply of fresh water to some kind of container in the garden. This may be in the form of a pond, a bird bath or simply a small tray filled with water. In all cases the water must obviously be accessible, but equally important is an escape route for animals which may inadvertently fall in. Buckets, uncovered water butts and highly raised ponds are death traps for wild creatures of all kinds: they sometimes balance on the rim to drink or even jump in to swim, but once in the water they find themselves unable to escape and will inevitably drown.

This issue can be solved by placing a sloped stone into the birdbath or water tray so that small creatures or young birds can raise themselves out of the water. A pond should ideally have sides which slope gently through shallows to the bank (this will provide a better home for a wide range of wildlife) but where the sides of a pond are steep a ramp should be provided. This can be formed simply from a piece of wood placed so that it allows creatures to walk out of the water onto the surrounding wall or bank. Water butts and other high containers in which a ramp is not practical should be permanently covered.

We humans are fussy about what we drink, but even our cleanest tap water can contain higher levels of minerals than are found in rivers and wild ponds which are constantly diluted with rainwater. Animals can taste this difference and prefer to drink water just as nature provides it (even if it looks disgusting to us) so, where possible, the best water to provide is fresh rainwater, otherwise rainwater stored in a water butt will be appreciated much more than tap water.

However, if nothing else is available tap water is better than nothing, so please provide it, but don’t be surprised if it remains untouched for a few days until the fresh air and sunlight have changed its taste.

Water tray, 9 pm. A Common Frog has found a home. Image © copyright BridgeNature.org 2016

Water tray, 9.oo pm: a Common Frog has found a home. Image © copyright BridgeNature.org 2016