The Mammal Life of Fishlake Meadows: Hampshire’s next big nature reserve

Originally published in the Spring 2015 newsletter of the Hampshire Mammal Group. I’m currently running my third season of mammal surveys at the site to be compiled in a three-year report.

Immediately north of Romsey lies 200 acres of land beautifully reclaimed by nature. Fishlake Meadows has a complex history – originally just drained farmland, when the pumps were switched off in the 1980s the site was swamped into a myriad of pools, ditches, reedbeds and wet grassland. Its various owners never knew what to do with it – one of them, a certain Kevin Keegan, even threatening to convert it into a golf course – till the current landowner decided to sell it off to Test Valley borough council in July, who are set to develop an ecological management plan and create a new nature reserve for Romsey.

This is all being carefully overseen by the environment committee of Romsey & District Society, utilising the records compiled by local naturalists surveying the site’s wildlife in their own time. Not surprisingly, birds make up most of the information – over 160 species recorded, with some real corkers such as regular passage ospreys, wintering bitterns and some leg-rubbingly good visitors like bluethroat and Siberian chiffchaff. Dragonflies have a good track record, and orchids are getting more of a limelight. Mammal studies on the other hand, like the animals themselves, remained elusive. So when I got back from my travels in my A-Levels/University gap year back in the spring of 2013, wanting to contribute to local conservation efforts while embracing my passion for mammalogy, I saw this blank spot as the perfect way to accomplish both.

That first year was essentially about getting to grips with learning how to survey mammals on the go, based on tit-bits of practical learning and advice over the years, in addition to my general intuition as a life-long amateur naturalist. I completed my first solo small mammal survey thanks to a loan of longworth traps from the Mammal Society, which taught me many valuable life lessons, such as the bite force of a wood mouse. I honed my camera trapping skills, unfortunately not getting any of the otters I was hoping for, but that was easily made up for by my direct sighting on the adjacent canal, her lithe body slipping through the sunset-dappled water with an indescribable magic – the sort that reminds us why we all love this thing called nature.

As the summer of 2014 dawned, it was time to get going proper, and as I currently write up the report for the environment committee, I’m content to say it went very well indeed. While I didn’t get any direct observations of otters this year, plenty of prints and spraint at a regular marking spot (much of which I’ve taken back home to analyse – oh, the joys you can find in poo) were around throughout the year. I also managed to get a couple of great camera trap films. On the first occasion, I set the camera rather low to the ground, and on my return almost had a mini heart-attack when I found it was gone. To my relief and bafflement, it was grounded in nearby reeds, and watching the footage revealed a curious otter had uprooted the post and turned it into a makeshift football! On the second occasion, a half-eaten eel was the giveaway that allowed me to film the otter returning to finish its meal – only for the footage to reveal a fox gulping it down, leaving a very confused and hungry otter appearing later in the night!

The state of the water vole at Fishlake much reflects the country at large – from days when the older naturalists tell me they would count dozens in an afternoon, you’re lucky to see one now. Mink don’t have a foothold here thankfully, but rats appear to have pushed most of the voles to the Northern reaches of the site as Romsey has built up around it. A stretch of ditch where I regularly observed a mother with kits last Summer has thankfully maintained feeding signs and latrines this year however, and there is the potential for these charismatic rodents to still be resident in less-accessible areas of the site. Mammal trapping this year within the wet grassland area was very fruitful – 60% capture rate nearly every day!

Wood mice were once again the most common capture, as were a fair number of bank voles. A particularly indignant individual protested efficiently by dispensing Niagra falls quantities of urine into my trap bag, and it took days for the smell to leave my car. Of particular note were the three yellow-necked mice caught. These are typical of ancient woodland, so it was intriguing to record them in this open, damp environment. They also presented new challenges; they’re like Usain Bolt with the aggression of Luis Suarez when it comes to handling them, and I narrowly avoided the loss of several fingers!


My first yellow-necked mouse

Felt mats put out to survey reptiles were unsuccessful on that front, but were adored by the field vole population. I’ll never forget the moment I uncovered a nest containing young only a few days old, their eyes still closed.

This year I was also after two as yet unrecorded mammals for the site, the water shrew and harvest mouse, both surveyed indirectly by gathering, as you may have guessed, their potential poo. As I write I am still waiting on DNA analysis feedback, but I remain confident. The bait tube survey for the shrews yielded many scats, but in a sense was deemed irrelevant when I discovered a dead individual on one of the days I was putting tubes out! He now resides comfortably in my freezer.


Morbid delight upon finding a dead water shrew.

For the harvest mice, mammalogist ingenuity was unleashed with the relatively new ‘bait cane’ method trialled in Wales last year (illustrated in the photo), which ultimately proved successful there and in my surveys. While I’m waiting for confirmation, there aren’t many other mammals living at stalk level so deep into the reedbed to leave seed remains and poo of the small size I found, so I remain hopeful that Fishlake is a bountiful sight for these delightful mammals.

This is just the start of a long-term monitoring programme which I’ll try and keep to as long as I can, university commitments depending. I’m already planning ideas for the 2015 season, including placing longworths at the stalk level of the reeds to try and live capture harvest mice. As the site becomes more known to the public as its nature reserve status develops over the years, I can only hope the mammal life I have grown so attached to here will continue to proliferate, and many others will gain an insight into their mysterious world.

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