The World of Small Mammals

This piece was written as part of the Naturewatch blog, a brilliant web nature series I’ve presented and currently script edit for university. See the original piece here.

In our latest episode of Naturewatch, we were joined by Nick Baker of Really Wild Show and Springwatch fame, a genuinely amicable and knowledgeable bloke, who certainly inspired me from a young age when his book of the wildlife year became my holy bible. But Nick, Liz and myself were upstaged by fellow mammals far smaller than ourselves, in the form of the co-stars we waxed lyrical over during our piece.


The Naturewatch team with Nick Baker (Photo: Russell Barnett)

The mice, voles and shrews that scurry, burrow and snuffle through the vegetation are Cornwall’s, and the rest of Britain’s, most numerous group of mammals. Despite this, they remain elusive and unseen while we clumsy humans stampede past like walking tractors – even when we do see them, they are frequently quick and unlikely to hang around for long, as our Naturewatch camera crew found out to much frustration! To get a really good up-close view of these animals (and contribute to good science too), your best bet is to go small mammal trapping.

Before you do, if your experience in the practice is limited or beginner, ensure you’re doing it with someone who has the know-how and holds a license to trap shrews – as this practice involves maintaining good animal welfare, you want to ensure any captures you get are as healthy and stress-free as they can be. One of the most common and efficient traps to use – including the type we used on Naturewatch – is a rather wonderful steel contraption called the Longworth trap, which consists of a detachable tunnel and nest box. The latter is filled up with warm, cosy bedding such as hay and bait to ensure you’ve got something to entice the critters with and a tasty meal for the night: seed mix for mice and voles, and plenty of fleshy blowfly larvae (casters) or dog/cat food for shrews, topped up with apple for fluid, provides a satisfying evening a la carte. The traps all set, well covered and insulated, usually in a hedgerow type feature (the animals use these as corridors across the landscape), you can leave them open overnight to return early the following morning to see what you’ve got. Continue reading

Buzzing through Autumn

See the original piece, as written for my university’s student newspaper ‘The Falmouth Anchor’ here.


Photo: Will Hawkes

It’s that divisive time of year again – it may shine bright, clear and golden, but the air that hits your face when you step out of your door is ice-cold and snatches unexpectedly at your now sniffling nose. Some may love the Autumn, relishing in the opportunity to cloak themselves in duffle coats and scarves again like a maddened roof insulator and the childhood nostalgia of kicking dead leaves on a crisp amber afternoon, while others mourn the loss of occasional scorching days and default wearing of single layers, that only seems to have been a couple of weeks before.

But fear not, Summer lovers – if you want an inkling of the feel that the raucous season insinuates in our minds, turn your attention to ivy bees. Unlike many of our native bees, most beginning to turn in for the winter and hide away (how I envy them), the ivy bee Colletes hederae is on the wing right to the end of October. As its name suggests, their devotion to the pollen of ivy, which doesn’t flower until the Autumn, means their presence brings one last reminder of the heady buzzing of bees on a Summer’s day, when much of nature seems to be shutting down.

This particular species belongs to a fascinating group of bees called the mininig bees – not because they’re affiliated with CSM, but for their habit of rather charmingly digging nests into soft soils, given away by an incredibly neat, circular hole the diameter of a daisy head, with a teeny porch of excavated earth in front. Although these are solitary bees, the nests are built in huge communal clusters that aren’t difficult to lose sight of – and they’ve popped up right around the Penryn and Falmouth area. If you know somewhere with open, loose-soiled banks facing Southwards, you’ve got a good chance of spotting an ivy bee colony.

And if you do, its important to get it recorded – for much like iced coffee, tropical house and wet weather, the ivy bee is a rather recent arrival to the UK (extended) Summer scene, its first landfall in Britain described only 15 years ago. In the years since, BWARS (Bees, Wasps & Ants Recording Society) have been mapping the spread of these colonies across the country – you can submit any of your sightings here. What’s occurred is a South-East focused nucleus gradually encroaching North and Westwards – who knows what the map will look like in another ten years?

In a time when most media coverage of bees charts a devastating decline – one that is certainly true and we should not take lightly – to at least have some species not only new to this country, but growing in number, is a positive thought indeed. And when it can brighten a cold day, what’s not to like? Get out there, find your nearest ivy bee colony and just sit, watch and absorb the life going on in front of you – I challenge you not to be enchanted.

State of Nature 2: Still not in a good state


Look at that above image – isn’t it exciting? If you’re a conservation NGO in the UK, you’re more than likely to be under the State of Nature partnership. The popular kids like the RSPB and Wildlife Trusts rub shoulders with the niche but equally wonderful smaller groups such as the Conchological Society and Froglife. The international students, big hitters like WWF, ZSL and (the legacy of my own particular role model) Durrell contributing to the fight on our doorstep. Not to mention an organisation I sit on the leading committee for, the UK’S youth network A Focus on Nature, is sitting up there. As someone who’s only just started a Master’s and isn’t even working in conservation, that makes me feel rather giddy to know the work we’re doing is represented on such a stage.

It should be the dream team. Like a wildlife Avengers Assemble, the State of Nature network should be spearheading real, direct action to set up new policy and put in more effective practice. Under this umbrella unit, we should be seeing some clarity to Mark Avery’s ‘Tangled Bank’ of NGOs, where the huge array of organisations becomes as confusing to negotiate as the craft ale selection in a pretentious hipster bar.

Sadly, the State of Nature partnership has returned in a sequel that bares about as much optimism as ‘The Empire Strikes Back’ (nb: if for some reason you aren’t familiar with Star Wars, that means not good.) The State of Nature 2 report was launched today, and only 3 years after the first one. It all seems a bit soon, and might make one think we’ve had an apocalyptic decline of wildlife in that time (surely Brexit didn’t result in all our songbirds dying off as well?). Maybe not quite, but certainly in the last few decades. But then isn’t that what the one in 2013 said? And I definitely remember going to the launch of the ‘Response for Nature’ report last year too. Continue reading

Martian Cats & Living Pinecones: Saving Vietnam’s Pangolins & Carnivores

It’s nearly 3am, and the local crickets and cicadas are probably feeling rather put-off by the fact their regular chorus at this time – a continuous buzz and fizz like a convention of sewing machines and buzz saws gone haywire – is for once being overshadowed by the holler of humans up way past their bedtime. The porch lights at the gates of the centre illuminated a lazy gold-orange glow on proceedings, which was beginning to resemble something like a nature conservationist Dunkirk. The barks of requests for ID, water and a microchip bounce around the warm night air of the Forest, wooden crates lie scattered across the gravel where one by one they are hauled onto a battered old bus waiting in the gateway, and only two or three of the team of 15 or so people seem to stay fixed to one spot.

Though my body was used to being in deep sleep by now, the rush of the moment kept my mind as active as if I had received shots of espresso to my bloodstream. I went from crate to crate with a rapidly decreasing load of water in a plastic bottle, pouring it into cups hooked to the inside of the boxes, and then going back to crates waiting to be loaded to double-check they’d received water in the midst of the rush. Occasionally I’d find myself called over, and sent to delicately lift out the occupants of these boxes for one last health check. In between my hands, a football-like sphere of brown scales that could be mistaken for a giant seed-pod or other earthy product, until from the centre a naked, elongated, almost canine face and a pair of tiny stumpy feet ending in heavy curled claws unravels itself. Tonight, we’re giving 20 Sunda pangolins a second chance.


A Sunda pangolin (Manis javanica) about to undergo a vet check.

Continue reading

Guest blog for Cornwall Wildlife Trust: The Art of Badger Watching

Read the original piece, as published on Cornwall Wildlife Trust’s 30 Days Wild blog, here.


Night falls across Cornwall. As the moon shines over the hedgerows, wooded valleys and cliff-top scrubs, one of our most familiar, yet oft unseen wild neighbours emerge from their deep homes underground, snuffling for worms till day-break.

Badgers are busy indeed at this time of year, and the West Country is their UK strong-hold. A landscape rich in pastoral grazing systems and the rich, pesticide-free soil this provides is brimming with earthworms. These make up a huge part of the badger’s diet, and while they certainly aren’t fussy in regards to what they eat, the humble earthworm has allowed badgers to be a relatively easy mammal to find in the Cornish countryside – if you know where and how to look. Continue reading

What is Rewilding, anyway? Why identity is stalling progress.

Rewilding – everyone with an interest in conservation is talking about it. Even those who aren’t particularly aware or invested in wildlife matters will at least have heard something along the lines of “they want to bring wolves back to Scotland” at some point in their lives.

Is this lynx the first thing that pops into your head when you hear the word ‘Rewilding’?

While many are aware of rewilding, actually defining it appears to be a complex puzzle few can solve. Generally, it’s thought to mean returning nature to a largely self-willed state, with the ‘missing links’ restored, and this is about as clear cut as you’ll get. Its meaning has been mashed, contradicted and redefined as much as the ecological landscape of Britain. Are we talking about reintroducing extinct species into forested landscapes with no human influence, or simply putting out some Dexter cattle to graze the reeds on the reserve rather than having volunteers cut it?

Finding the true meaning of rewilding is so difficult in fact, that it was the subject of an entire paper. Published a few months back in Current Biology, ‘Rewilding is the new Pandora’s Box in Conservation’ by David Nogués-Bravo et al [1] could be summed up with one word – ‘caution’. Confusion over how we define rewilding may have consequences beyond a simple etymological puzzle – it could affect the outcome of conservation projects, and have wider consequences if things are done incorrectly or oversimplified. Continue reading

The Dalmatian Pelican’s Triumphant Return to Britain

“It’s the first one ever seen in Britain!” Such was the response to a rather special visitor to my university-home county of Cornwall over the past fortnight. If you didn’t know, a Dalmatian pelican Pelecanus crispus realised it had a significant amount of trust fund money after fledging the nest, and rather than settle down with the rest of its kind in the Danube delta, decided to travel the world. This spiritual journey inevitably lead it to Cornwall, where it has been no doubt thrilling the local gulls with its stories of ‘mad nights’ vaping with crows in Poland and why every bird deserves the soul reawakening that can only be found by fishing solo in Germany. Maybe.


The Cornish bird itself, as photographed by my friend Ben Porter.

It arrived very conveniently in the middle of my university finals, and I almost defied my agnostic-atheist views to pray that it stayed a little longer. To my joy, it did hang on, and at time of writing is still gallivanting around the Land’s End area. I went to see it myself twice last week. The first time we were lucky to be treated to a brief fly-by within seconds of arriving at the spot: like a great white biplane, it soared effortlessly regally among the gulls, drifting South-West towards the coast. A day later, it had set up shop at a local RSPB reserve, and this time we were treated to wonderful views of it sat squat in the centre of an estuary, occasionally preening itself or waddling through the mud like a portly drunkard trying and failing to walk in a straight line for the police. Our best views were obtained from a train station platform, which I’m eternally grateful for the porter granting us permission to use. “Five minutes, then yer’ off before the train gets in” he informed us, with a considerable mustering of authority. By the time we were done however, he was so fascinated we were kept back a good deal longer as we explained the situation to him.

Pelican billy

Definitely the pelican, as we saw it from the station platform. Photograph by Billy Heaney.

Regardless of its origins or reasons for being here, the bird that is quite happily settled in Cornwall, oblivious to the hordes of cooing twitchers, is far from the first Dalmatian pelican in Britain. In fact, you might call it something of a homecoming. Surprising as it may seem, the Dalmatian pelican is an extinct British native. Continue reading