On West Sedgemoor we have one of the few growing populations of breeding curlew on lowland wet grassland in the UK. In 2017, RSPB Somerset started looking more closely into why this is in order to inform our land management for curlew and to maybe get an insight into why other lowland populations are failing.
West Sedgemoor in spring and early summer is a wonderful place, full of the sounds and smells of traditional hay meadows and pasture, including displaying curlew with their array of bubbling calls and conspicuous aerial displays. Adults are really feisty birds in spring and defend their territories vigorously against buzzards, grey herons and carrion crows which venture into their airspace. Their territory fields are often full of bright yellow marsh marigold, the deep purple of southern marsh orchids, with the gentle pink of frogbit flowers in adjacent ditches. West Sedgemoor is a great place for many breeding birds at this time, including snipe and redshank, reed buntings and large numbers of yellow wagtails, an important summer visitor to the Levels.
From late April onwards we spent many hours locating curlew nests on the north side of the moor, weighing and measuring each egg to get an estimate of when they would hatch. This was done so we could return to the nest just as the chicks hatched in order to attach radio tags to them. This was done so we could follow them as they explored the grasslands and see where they fed and whether they survived to become independent from their parents. Finding curlew nests is time consuming and requires a lot of fieldcraft. We reckon it took on average 8-9 hours to locate each nest – curlew are very, very careful in how they approach a nest, and may spend 30 minutes or more pottering about before they settle - there’s no point in being well-camouflaged if you give the nest location away to an observant carrion crow!
Photo 1: A typical curlew nest of four eggs on West Sedgemoor 2017 by Richard Archer
In all, we located nine nests, including one which was a re-lay by a pair that had been predated. We also found a curlew family from another nest site which we hadn’t previously located. 70% of our curlew nests were predated between April and June, which is quite a high rate of loss; however we think that three pairs on the north side probably produced one or more chicks to the stage where they could fly (fledge), and with up to five pairs on the south side of the moor, it seems likely that the 15 or so pairs on the whole moor produced eight young (at a conservative estimate): it is very difficult to be absolutely sure once young birds have fledged (unless you are fortunate enough to locate them in a silage field). This suggests that our curlews produced over half a chick per pair this year - probably enough to explain why the population is growing, although it wouldn’t take much of a reduction in the number of fledged chicks for this population to be in trouble. We therefore need to continue the work to get a longer run of data before we can feel confident that productivity really is good enough to maintain the West Sedgemoor population.
Interestingly, all our nine nests were located in species-rich hay meadows, and the chicks we managed to radio tag spent most of their time in these same fields, where there is lots of invertebrate food (such as grasshoppers and spiders) and the grassland is dense enough to provide cover for the chicks to hide in, but not too dense to make it difficult to move about. Because water levels in the adjacent ditches are held quite high at this time of year, the grassland soils remain damp, encouraging invertebrate abundance and making it easier for adults and sometimes the chicks to probe the soil for food, although the chicks, with their shorter bills mainly take food from the soil surface and from vegetation. Up to the time of fledging, none of the nest or chick fields had been cut for hay – something which would result in a lot of chick deaths. The RSPB on West Sedgemoor works with its tenant farmers to delay hay cutting until after mid-July, and this seems to be of critical importance to the attraction of the site for curlew.
Photo 2: Curlew chick hiding in the long grass, West Sedgemoor 2017 by Richard Archer
2017 was a good year for breeding cranes on West Sedgemoor, which produced fledged chicks for the first time. This success is probably linked with the work we have done to reduce fox predation. We are thinking about whether we could extend some of these measures to the north side of the site in 2018 to help reduce curlew nest predation. In the meantime, we will continue to manage our species-rich hay meadows in the traditional way, work with our tenant farmers to delay hay cutting until our young curlew have fledged, and holding field water levels high enough to keep soils damp.
Photo 3: Taking weight and wing / bill / leg measurements of a 26 day old curlew chick, West Sedgemoor 2017 by Richard Archer
Part of the 2017 study was done through my sabbatical, and we managed to attract a Masters student from Leeds University (Leah Kelly). We also had the support of a great ringing team, led by Alison Morgan as our chief ringer and radio tagger, aided by Rich Hearn from Wildfowel and Wetlands Trust (WWT) and Ed Drewitt who provided invaluable support in the early stages of radio tagging. Jen Smart, Kirsty Brannan, Tony Cross, Harry Paget-Wilkes and the West Sedgemoor reserves team were also critical to getting this project off the ground. Our neighboring farmers on West Sedgemoor were also very helpful and allowed us to venture into their fields to look for nests. Watch this space for an update on the 2018 breeding season next autumn.
RSPB's Morwenna Alldis and the RSPCA, ask the public to check their bonfire heaps for hedgehogs before lighting them this year. Morwenna also offers some top tips on how the public can help give hedgehogs a home in their gardens.
Since moving to a house with a garden, and basically tripping over a hedgehog whilst hanging out the washing one evening (I can’t remember the last time I’ve been that excited), I’m determined to do all that I can to provide a comfortable home for my local hedgehogs in my own greenspace. I say hedgehogs in the plural, because did you know that up to around ten individual hedgehogs can visit your garden in one night?
Photo 1: Hedgehog by Ben Hall (rspb-images.com)
The most important action you can take to help your hedgehogs at this fizzing, whizzing, sparkly, marshmallowey time of year, is to check your garden bonfire before you light it. Hedgehogs hibernate between November-March and your warm, sheltered bonfire pile is the perfect, seemingly safe haven for them to snuggle down in and begin their long zzz’s. The best option is to build your bonfire on the day you’re going to light it and not before. This will prevent your garden wildlife from bedding down in the pile and save you the hassle of trying to light a potentially sodden bonfire due to last night’s rain. Remember it’s not only hedgehogs that may have sought shelter your bonfire pile, but also amphibians such as frogs, toads and newts too.
RSPCA Wildlife Scientific Officer, Llewelyn Lowen, said: “While bonfires may look like large piles of leaves and wood to us, to a hedgehog and many other animals they are great places to find food and build nests.
“Sadly it’s not uncommon for burned hedgehogs to be rushed into our care after they have been caught up in a lit bonfire - and at this time of year the risk is especially high.
“Because of this we are just reminding people about the importance of taking the time to check bonfires before they are lit.”
Llewelyn added: “It can be very hard to see a brown hedgehog in amongst a pile of wood, and the only way to be sure is to move the bonfire by hand before actually lighting it. It helps to build the bonfire as near as possible to the time of lighting, to ensure hedgehogs and other wildlife are not sleeping in the pile when it is lit.”
For more information about caring for hedgehogs please click here.
If you see an animal you have concerns about please call the RSPCA's emergency line on 0300 1234 999.
Photo 2: Check your bonfires before lighting this November by RSPB
RSPB’s Morwenna offers some top tips on how to give hedgehogs a happy home in our gardens all year round.
Our UK hedgehogs are really struggling - since the year 2000, rural populations have declined by at least a half and urban populations by up to a third. This terrible decline is in part down to changes to the hedgehog’s natural habitat and ability to access suitable food. Here are some year round top-tips to help your garden Mr and Mrs Tiggy-Winkle.
Put a hole in it: Our modern preference to swap hedges (safe animal corridors) for impenetrable fences has hindered the ability of small garden mammals, such as hedgehogs, to travel between our gardens to forage. Hedgehogs will journey for around 12 miles a night to seek food and a mate. So if you have a fence place a 13cm x 13cm hole along the bottom of your fence to allow more access – do check with your neighbour first!
Photo 3: Hedgehog hole in a garden fence by Eleanor-Bentall (rspb-images.com)
Feeding hungry hogs: The tradition of bread soaked in milk for hedgehogs is a big no-no and could give the hungry hog an upset stomach. Instead, pop out a saucer of fresh water, some tinned dog or cat food, or some of our dried RSPB Buggy Crunch a healthy and nutritional snack made specifically for hedgehogs: http://bit.ly/2BuggyCrunch. Feeding is especially important now as hedgehogs need to reach the right body fat in order to survive hibernation, especially critical for hoglets born late in the season.
Bridge the gap: Whilst hedgehogs can climb and even swim, they can easily get into difficulty in our garden ponds or even drainage holes and ditches. Install a hedgehog ladder or ramp for easy access out of the hole or pond e.g. bricks stacked in a pond/ditch so they can climb out.
Green mess is best: Hedgehogs like to hibernate and nest in a cosy, sheltered spot so keep your gardens a bit messy, especially at this time of year. If you have a lot of leaf litter, rather than discarding it, sweep it into a pile up a quiet corner of your garden. A messy bottom when it comes to hedges is also beneficial, offering lots of cover for hedgehogs to safely travel between our greenspaces. But be careful when it comes to turning over your compost – hedgehogs will hunker down there too, so please check before you start forking.
Photo 4: Long grass and wood piles are perfect for hedgehogs to shelter in by Eleanor Bentall (rspb-images.com)
Don’t be a litter bug: Tidiness in your garden is really important when it comes to storing litter. Plastic bags, netting (including garden fruit nets or tennis nets), the plastic rings from a pack of tins – can all be potentially lethal to hedgehogs if they get trapped. Ensure that litter is stored safely out of harm’s way.
Ditch the slug pellets: Garden chemicals including slug pellets, are extremely harmful to hedgehogs and can cause death. Use natural alternatives such as beer traps, crushed egg shells or coffee grounds. And remember that hedgehogs love to munch slugs and snails, so if you create a chemical free garden haven for them, they’ll sort your pest problem anyway and fill their bellies at the same time.
For more information on how to give nature a home, click here.
Photo 5: Hedgehog by Ben Hall (rspb-images.com)
Strange things have been reported on RSPB Marazion Marsh….sightings of weird and wonderful phenomena that will chill the blood and freeze the soul!
On a misty Tuesday morning in West Cornwall RSPB volunteer, Christine Moore, ventured out on our Marazion Marsh nature reserve in search of dragonflies. Little did she know that she would be facing something so bizarre, so unusual it would have her scratching her head in bewilderment and disbelief for at least 25 minutes.
While walking across ‘the meadow’ she found nestled among the blades of grass, a strange, stiff jelly-like substance….it was approximately 20 cms in diameter and congealed into odd viscous blobs.
Photo 1: Strange slime at Marazion! by Christine Moore
Could this be ectoplasm manifested by some ancient spectral being wandering lost through eternity? Perhaps astral slime disgorged by visiting aliens on a mission to conquer our beautiful planet? Better still could this possibly be the nocturnal deposits of the infamous (and extremely elusive) Ravenous Bugblatter Beast of Traal?
Christine said: "As for what I thought? Oh! Well, I had no idea what it was, something from a giant amphibian was the joke, who knows what lurks out there in the reeds! Seriously I thought it was animal of some sort, vomit (ugh!) or something out of the bum-end!"
Unfortunately none of these wild speculations are even close to the truth - although the real story is almost as fascinating. In February 2013 a similar sighting was made at RSPB Ham Wall in Somerset and at the time generated wild speculation as to its origins - it even made the national press! It stumped experts until Peter Green, a Devonshire vet who works with wildlife, contacted the RSPB with a very simple and logical explanation. He believed it to be amphibian in origin.
Photo 2: Common toad by Ben Andrew (rspb-images.com)
At the time Public Affairs Manager Tony Whitehead stated: “At this time of year amphibians are spawning. The spawn is held in a substance known as glycoprotein which is stored in the female body. If the animal is attacked by a predator it will quite naturally drop its spawn and the associated glycoprotein. However, if it’s unfertilised, it is just empty glycoprotein that is dropped – which on contact with the ground will swell and give a clear slime like substance.
“While this is our favoured explanation for the appearance of the slime, it’s also worth remembering that other things can give a similar appearance. Certain slime moulds can. So can the wonderfully named crystal brain fungus, but this appears on wood. Also certain algae and blue-green algae can also appear as a clear slime”
So the mystery appears solved, but strangely the RSPB Ham Wall incident occurred in February and Christine’s sighting in October….surely too late (or 5 months early) for frogs and toads to be even thinking about spawning? Some may speculate that this is probably due to the mild weather we enjoy here in Cornwall. Some might say that it is evidence of climate change blurring the seasons for many species. After careful consideration of all the facts, and examination of the evidence, I think my money’s still on the Ravenous Bugblatter Beast of Traal!
Photo 3: RSPB Marazion Marsh by Dave Flumm