A little while ago Howl attended a British Mammal Workshop, a two-day course providing a fantastic opportunity for young naturalists to discover the elusive and oft-neglect world of British mammals. This fantastic opportunity was run by A Focus on Nature, a small committee of young conservationists and one individual, Peter Cooper took on the role of organising this workshop. As soon as I saw this opportunity I was quick to sign up and was looking forward to enhancing my knowledge through the various talks, workshops and direct contact with both captive and wild animals.
The workshop took place at a Devon-based farm and wildlife photography centre, owned by Derek Gow, a renowned conservationist and principal ecologist at the Derek Gow consultancy. He has been involved in mammal conservation projects since the early 90’s, specialising in water vole ecology and also showing huge enthusiasm for the reintroduction of the European beaver in the UK. He advised on the reintroduction of beavers at knapdale and you can read about my experiences with this project here.
The workshop kicked off to a great start with a warm cup of tea and plenty of biscuits! More importantly we were given a vital induction, which looked at the history of British mammal species. There was a particular focus on human intervention and the extirpation of species, such as the wolf and lynx. Focus was also placed on recent reintroduction projects and trials, such as the beaver and wild boar and the struggles that accompany these efforts.
Following the induction, the group was quick to get stuck in to preparing 50 small mammal traps. We learned the importance of making sure everything was just right inside each trap to ensure that once a species was caught, it was warm, comfortable and fed. We stuffed each trap with plenty of hay and a small amount of cotton wool to keep them warm and dry, along with a little bit of food to act as temptation. The set menu for the herbivores consisted of an oat mix accompanied by a juicy slice of apple, whereas the carnivores were treated to a not so juicy serving of cat food. Bon Appétit!
With the traps prepared, we split off into small groups to maximise the survey area and each chose a location that we deemed suitable mammal habitat. I chose to place mine along the woodland edges, one tucked in amongst the brambles and the other at an edge where there was a nice patch of grassland. With 50 traps placed, it was time to leave them overnight and head off to catch a glimpse of some beavers!
We entered the large enclosure and it certainly did not take long to notice their presence. As I looked around I started to notice some rather neat, albeit large chunks missing from fence posts and some well-defined trails through the long grass. We arrived a little too early to observe any emerging from their lodges, but Derek distracted us with an interesting discussion about the reintroduction of this species and allowed us to handle the skull and pelt of a beaver. As the evening crept upon us, it was time to head back into the warm, where homemade lasagne was waiting on the table!
It was a bright and early start so that we could try and catch a glimpse of some red deer. We sat patiently at the woodland edge, keeping our eyes peeled for any signs of movement. It was a misty morning, creating a beautiful atmosphere. Eventually, our patience was rewarded and we caught sight of a hind and her calf. They did not hang around for long after they immediately spotted us and disappeared into the distance. We carried on walking into the woodland, looking for signs of deer presence. We stumbled across a large muddy patch, which was actually a red deer wallow. Stags would come here to bathe in the mud and mark their territory and to clean off any parasites.
With much of the day still ahead of us, it was time to check the traps and retrace our steps from the previous day. With all 50 collected, I was hopeful that at least one person would have a bit of luck. In the excitement, it was revealed that there were many empty traps, but not all. We caught some rather feisty wood mice and were shown how to weigh and sex the individuals. Traps were emptied into a see through bag and the easiest and safest way to handle these individuals was to scruff them – you do not want to experience a little pair of incisors sink in to you! To finish this task off nicely, the last trap contained a juvenile field vole.
The next session was one which I was particularly excited for. Owl pellet analysis! We partnered up and each selected an owl pellet to dissect. Our aim was to pick out any bones, with a particular focus on the skulls. With the help of some handy guides and communicating with each other, we were able to identify which species the skulls belonged to. A large majority of the skulls were in fact field voles and this was clear due to the structure of teeth. We were also lucky to find some wood mice to allow us to compare the differences between the species and shared these findings with each other.
To finish off our time with Derek, we were given a short tour around the farm and shown the various captive animals. We witnessed the feeding time of a beautiful red fox, a cheeky pair of otters and a very stealthy wild cat, which are of considerable conservation concern in the UK. We also saw a large number of water voles, which form part of the reintroduction project, as well as members of the mustelidae family, including the American Mink, a species which is a major threat to the water vole.
After many interesting debates throughout the duration of this tour, the workshop came to an end. However, not wanting to rush off home and with some experienced consultants amongst the group, there was a planned dormice survey on the cards, which involved checking nest boxes for presence. Despite the large number of nest boxes in the selected area of woodland, there was no evidence of dormice presence. However, we stumbled across something quite unusual within two adjacent boxes. There were two abandoned blue tit nests, each containing dead chicks. Perhaps they had been abandoned, the parents had died or they were permanently scared off? Despite this, we carried on with the survey, being sure to look for signs such as the gnawing patterns on nuts. Our efforts were finally rewarded when we found a family of wood mice, with two adults and two juveniles!
This was an incredible informative and enjoyable weekend. It proved to be a fantastic way of developing my knowledge and survey skills, which will no doubt prove essential in my future endeavours! A huge thank you goes out to all those involved!