Last Chance to See

We are living through what is referred to by many as the Anthropocene extinction.

Man’s activities, particularly destruction of habitat, is widely believed to be responsible to the loss of many species every year. In fact we simply don’t know how many species are being made extinct, but some estimates put it as high as many species every day !

If you didn’t get to see the Eastern Cougar, the Western Black Rhinoceros, the Pyrenean Ibex or Lonesome George, the world’s last Pinta Island Tortoise, anytime within the last ten years, then I’m afraid you’ve missed your chance. All are now extinct and gone.

You’ve probably still got a chance to catch the mountain gorilla (740 left), the Great Bamboo Lemur (60 to 160 left), the Blue-Throated Macaw (100 to 150 left) or  the Amur Leopard (19 to 26 left) if you don’t leave it too long.

Tragic and depressing as news of these critically endangered species are, no doubt many of us wonder what we can do to protect animals whose habitats are under threat far away.

Unfortunately the answer is probably not much – other than perhaps donating funds, where possible and raising awareness. Conservation and protecting biodiversity is something that has to be done locally. But we shouldn’t be so complacent about the biodiversity in our own backyard:

In the UK the Scottish Wildcat, the Red Squirrel, the Brown Hare and even the Hedgehog, are all considered to be under considerable threat.

Numerous societies and organisations would welcome you support, in campaigning to stop inappropriate development, protect habitat, support conservation measures and raise awareness, such as the Hare Preservation Trust, People’s Trust for Endangered Species, British Hedgehog Preservation Society, and the Westmoorland Squirrel Society.

We might not have been able to save the Chinese River Dolphin from our living room, but we might be able to save the Red Squirrel !

Photo from Wikicommons

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Boar in the Forest – Bats in the Bedroom

A couple of years ago the United Nations announced that for the first time in human history more people now live in urban environments than rural ones. I’ve gone the other way.

I was very much an urbanite, living in cities for most of my life – growing-up in Birmingham, studying in Swansea and Ghent, and working in London, Brighton and Reading, before moving with my family to the fantastic Forest of Dean seven years ago.

Before moving to the Forest my daily contact with nature was generally limited to spying a few birds in the garden, perhaps the occasional hungry squirrel and very occasional glimpses of the odd urban fox. Not any more ! Over the last few years in my garden alone I’ve had swallows, a pheasant, grass snakes, lizards, frogs, toads, jays, woodpeckers, hedgehogs, slow worms, buzzards, foxes, bats and sheep (which roam wild in the Forest), and while out walking in the woods I’ve seen deer, badgers, goshawks and wild boar. Only a few nights ago we awoke to find a long-eared bat flying around the bedroom !

Boar at night (very dark)          Pheasant with the chickens       Bat rescued from my bedroom

To my mind, there’s something very special about living in and amongst the natural world in this way, and in particular the larger animals. It’s very easy in the middle of a big city to forget that our man-made environments of concrete, tarmac, steel and glass are not all there is on the planet. The continued presence of natural environments helps remind us of the undeveloped landscapes of generations ago, and that human beings form only part of the complex interconnected web of life on Earth. Ultimately our future still depends on healthy, sustainable ecosystems, and perhaps we might want to be a bit more aware of those around us ?

But the truth is that in many parts of the developed world, including the UK, there is very little original habitat left. In the UK at least this isn’t a new phenomena – people have been radically changing the landscape for thousands of years; the Surrey heathlands were once forests which were cut down by neolithic man, and many of what we consider the typically British tree species comprising our forests are not in fact native, having been introduced since the middle ages, including horse chestnuts, sycamores, walnuts, firs, poplars, larch and even the ‘English’ Elm.

Despite the pressures of development and sprawl, there is an increasing movement to deliberately re-create natural wilderness areas and landscapes – including reintroducing many of the large animal species that were hunted to extinction, or lost through habitat destruction. This ‘rewilding’ aims both to create and conserve habitat and species for it’s own sake, enhancing and preserving biodiversity, but importantly also to re-establish our relationship with the natural world, perhaps leading us to afford it more value, status and respect.

Examples of rewilding range from the re-establishment of American Bison populations in Montana, to the reintroduction of beavers and elk in Scotland, and perhaps shortly the wolf.

If you’re interesting in supporting conservation biology and rewilding in a small way you might consider planting a wildlife area in your garden, something I’ll be working on in my own garden next year.

If you think on longer term timescales then you might want to plant a prehistoric tree !

The Wollemi Pine is a species of tree once known only through the fossil record from 50 million years ago. But in 1994 a few trees were found growing happily in a valley not far from Sydney, Australia – now designated as the Wollemi National Park. To help conserve this living fossil, conservationists are promoting the idea of growing the trees in domestic settings throughout the world – and thanks to my brother-in-law, we now have one in our garden . . .

Not quite Jurassic Park, but you get the idea !

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Photo by Schristia, via Flickr

Waking Up is Hard to Do

Guest post by Steph Best – wildlife hospital and rehabilitation volunteer with Vale animal Hospital

One of the most recognisable and pleasing noises you can hear at dusk in your garden, is the snuffling and rustling of Hedgehogs. Often you can catch glimpses of them as they forage under bushes and scurry through the flower beds, eating spiders, snails, and any other tasty morsels they deem worthy.

When they first emerge from hibernation in the spring, having snoozed away the cold winter months, they simply want to eat to fill up their fat reserves and start looking for romance!

Unfortunately every year some are not so lucky. During our hotter, longer summers many hedgehogs have a second litter of Hoglets in the autumn. These babies struggle to reach the 600g weight needed to survive the winter and as a result hedgehog carers, myself included, and wildlife hospitals sometimes receive an influx of autumn juveniles, brought in by concerned members of the public. Last year Evesham’s Vale Wildlife Hospital had over ninety hoglets due for release in the spring.

I started caring for Hedgehogs a couple of years ago after finding two Hoglets wandering around a relative’s garden. My wildlife hobby soon developed and took me to the Vale Wildlife Hospital where I began training in Wildlife care and rehabilitation. I now also enjoy doing a range of talks and school visits, educating adults and children in wildlife care, supported by the British Hedgehog Preservation Society. The Vale has an open day every year, and is well worth a visit to see what they actually do.

Hedgehogs were added to the ‘species in need of protection’ list recently, but many wildlife carers believe that they should have made the Endangered Species List. Sadly humans are once again the main cause, with habitat loss, road accidents, litter, enclosed gardens and netting, bonfires, and accidents with lawn mowers.

Many people are already Hedgehog aware, and leave out food and provide shelter for them. TV programs such as ‘Autumn and Spring Watch’ have also helped popularise wildlife awareness. This is a lovely time of year to look out for and enjoy our wildlife. Hoglets usually start to appear from May onwards, and you could well have several different Hedgehogs visiting your garden each night. They can wander up to two miles in an evening, visiting ten or more gardens looking for food and love.

There are several ways you can encourage Hedgehogs in your garden:

  • Regularly put out meat based pet foods and plenty of water in shallow dishes, or on old dinner plates, which are perfect.
  • Contrary to what many people believe hedgehogs should not be given milk to drink, as they cannot digest lactose and can become very ill. Bread is also not recommended as it can cause digestive clogging.
  • You can add to their natural diet by giving fruit, unsalted nuts, scrambled egg, meat left-over’s (cut up small), and some cat or dog biscuits. They should not be fed fish, however, or pork products or other salty foods.
  • You can make a feeding station by putting the food under a wooden board up on bricks, low enough for a Hedgehog to get under or get a plastic storage box, 30cm by 45cm, cut a door way in the shorter side, 10cm square; tape up the edges of the doorway, line it with newspaper, and place the food and water inside towards the back of the box, shut the lid to keep thieving cats away. Place the box in a sheltered area of your garden where there is any evidence of hedgehogs visiting.
  • Create a daytime sleeping place for hedgehogs by putting straw or shredded newspaper in a medium sized box, under a sheltered spot, cover the top with some plastic to keep it dry.
  • Keep garden netting and sports netting up off the ground by at least 1ft, to avoid causing strangulation injuries to tangled hedgehogs.
  • Cover drains, and check compost heaps before sticking a fork or spade in, and thoroughly check bonfires before lighting. Many Hedgehogs die this time of year because they sleep in piles of dried garden refuse ready burning. If you find a Hedgehog move it to a safer quiet place in the garden.
  • When mowing or strimming areas of long grass, or undergrowth check for Hedgehogs who could be asleep. Carers and Wildlife Sanctuaries have seen a big increase in horrific injuries caused by strimmers.
  • If you use slug pellets, please buy organic varieties, which are animal friendly and widely available at garden centres, or use some of the brilliant alternatives, such as nematodes, copper tape, egg shells and beer traps.
  • If you have an enclosed garden, make a small gap under a fence to encourage Hedgehogs.
  • Don’t let your dog ‘play’ with a hedgehog in the garden, as the Hedgehog may die from shock. Move it to a quieter area of the garden where the dog can’t get to it, and distract your dog by playing with its favourite toy.
  • If you see a Hedgehog out during the day, it will need help. They never come out in daylight unless disturbed or ill. If you’re worried a Hedgehog is ill, injured, or abandoned by its mum, put it in a warm place wrapped in an old towel, offer it cat/dog food and water and ring a carer or the BHPS for advice.
  • Never disturb a nest, especially in the evening the mother generally won’t be far away and could abandon the babies if scared.

Making a few changes and adapting our gardens to help wildlife may seem small in scale, but will have a large impact overall. Hedgehogs are such a pleasure to see in our gardens and have been an inspiration for stories passed down the generations – I still have my very first copy of Beatrix Potter’s Mrs. Tiggywinkle.

Hopefully with our help they can thrive and inspire more stories for years to come.

The British Hedgehog Preservation Society

The Vale Wildlife Hospital & Rehabilitation Centre

Photos by Steph Best