Nature 2006 April

All Creatures Great and Small…

Looking back at my previous Hilltop News ‘scribblings’ I see that the Met Office were predicting a much colder winter season than usual. In fact their weather stats now bear this out. The winter just gone was the coldest for ten  years. The start of Spring was also heralded by bitterly cold days, flurries of snow and night time temperatures, down to -6.9°C even lower than in January and February. Its actually raining today as I write this article, the first time for three weeks, and with barely 2 inches of precipitation so far this year it’s hardly going to make much difference to the aquifers beneath our feet. Looking ahead the outlook is for cooler than average temperatures for April and May and for less rain that is normal for these months.

We almost take for granted the almost commonplace sightings of red kites these days. This year in particular several people have mentioned seeing a pair of these birds overhead in Buckland Common and last weekend I saw two soaring over Cholesbury so it may be that we can expect to have our first locally breeding pair before long.

I was listening to a discussion on Radio 4’s Nature programme the other evening about the reintroduction of species which had once been indigenous to the British Isles but have become extinct due in the main to man’s influence on them by hunting or habitat destruction. Unlike the kites, where their return was originally cautiously welcomed and now is heralded as a great success, many of the other reintroduction campaigns underway have been causing considerable controversy. You may have heard of trials to reintroduce beavers are currently underway in Kent and Gloucestershire. The Scottish Assembly has not yet given the go ahead to similar trials due to opposition from landowners. And beavers are one of the more innocuous candidates for reintroduction. You may recall the havoc caused when mink escaped from farms and devastated the local wildfowl. Pine martens, which are native to parts of Scotland, but are rarely seen in northern Britain, have a diet which also includes bird eggs. English Nature has identified five potential sites in the South West and East Sussex and although the RSPB has given a cautious welcome, gamekeepers are unsurprisingly anxious about the impact they may have on game bird populations. There are several other campaigns underway to re-introduce larger mammals. For example, grey wolves, which became extinct as late as the 17th century, into the Scottish Highlands. Only a few thousand years ago fossil evidence indicated they also roamed the then much more heavily wooded Chilterns.

The European lynx is also on the reintroduction list. It is thought the lynx eventually died out in England at the time of the Romans due to forestry clearance for industrial sized livestock farms. Lynx were reintroduced to Austria, Germany and Switzerland in the 1970’s and trials are now underway in France and Italy. If this sounds a bit tame I discovered there is even a group campaigning for the reintroduction of the European brown bear! Past reintroductions which received much support have included the osprey in Scotland and more recently Rutland Water. White-tailed eagles have eventually been established in a few Scottish offshore islands. Both have encouraged ecotourism trade for fishermen whose traditional livelihood has all but gone. It is anticipated that the great bustard located on MoD land on Salisbury Plain and the corncrake in Cambridgeshire will do the same for their respective local economies. At the other end of the celebrity stakes the reestablishment of the northern pool frog to Norfolk and the large blue butterfly in Devon and Cornwall are just as important for re-establishing biodiversity.

Aside from planned reintroductions there have been a number of unintentional ones, most notably the celebrated wild boar in Sussex and Kent. There have been sightings of boar in the Chilterns, in woods above Wycombe and as near as Great Missenden, but none in these parts yet as far as I know. Another exotic and unintentional reintroduction is the European eagle owl, an intimidating sight at over three feet tall, the largest owl in the world, which has been absent from the UK since pre-Roman times although in the 18th century they became established for a short time when the fashion to keep them for hunting fell away. There are now several known breeding pairs throughout England. Both boars and eagle owls are expected to become more widely established over the next few years and the Chiltern woodland is an ideal habitat for both. Such great creatures will influence the ecology of the area again as they did in the past.

Two other larger creatures, the badger and fox are more visible during these two months as they forage for food for their demanding offspring born between January and March. Old Brock appears to have also taken over from Reynard in the media as the debate over how best to stem the spread of bovine TB; culling vs. animal husbandry. Of the smaller creatures tadpoles are one of the first to show and will be well advanced in many of the ponds around here. In years such as this one the cold weather can delay or even prevent their development into ‘froglets’ whilst in others their abundant numbers lead to food shortage with the more robust ones turning cannibal on their unfortunate siblings. Either way by converting pond detritus into protein they provide valuable prey for the ferocious dragonfly larvae or great diving beetles thus sustaining the populations of these more fragile creatures.

It’s this time of the year that our Chiltern woodlands are at their best – a hive of activity. So it would be remiss not to include a reminder to visit the shimmering blue carpet of bluebells merging with the translucence of new beech leaves. Aside from horse chestnuts, wild cherries and willows most woodland trees do not produce showy flowers and I have found some people are surprised to know that all trees normally produce flowers, usually in the spring or early summer. Take a look upwards amongst these newly emergent diaphanous green leaves for what passes as flowers in the tree world. Not flashy but intricate and beautiful in their own way. Their emergence ahead of other meadow and hedgerow flowers is a lifesaver for the first generation of bees. Look down too and carefully turn over a decaying log- please do remember to roll them back carefully after looking – to see yet more of the less celebrated woodland creatures, millipedes, woodlouse and beetles. Together with the large creatures they play a vital part of the ecology of the Chiltern scene which in return provides a haven for all creatures great and small!

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