WILDLIFE NIGHTSHIFT IN THE COUNTRY

IN Britain today it is easier to see a lion than a hare, an elephant than a badger. It is true you would have to go to a zoo, to see lions and elephants; but once there, you would be almost certain to find them, whereas you might spend lots of time in the country without ever seeing hares, badgers, or any of the animals of the countryside. Many people who live all their lives in the country have never set eyes on such creatures as badgers or otters. All our native British animals are both shy, and largely nocturnal, so that you have to know where to begin looking for them, and it helps to know a few tricks of the trade.

HOW TO SEE WILD LIFE

One of these tricks of the trade is to look first for the characteristic traces of the animal, rather than the animal itself. Tracks can easily be seen in snow, and sometimes in soft mud by streams. Some animals, such as deer, badgers, and rabbits, tend to follow already existing trackways, whereas cats and foxes are more individualistic, avoid existing trails and making their own way along hedges and across fields. Some try to keep to cover, such as hedgerows, ditches, and river banks -stoats, weasels, rats and water voles do this. You can soon learn to recognize their footprints. And once having spotted these prints, you then know where to look for the animals, because many of them do not stray very far, and may return time after time to the same places. The fox, for instance, may patrol regularly at set times round his own domain. Another way of tracing animals to their haunts is to look for their droppings, or scats, again very characteristic.

Even easier to spot are mole hills. They are very often found in groups in the corners of fields, or by hedges; you can often see them from the train, as you rush through the countryside. When you have found them, examine the earth in them, to see whether it is fresh and moist. If so, you know at least one mole is working there. You may not be lucky enough to see him, but you can often see earth being thrown up, as the mole tunnels underneath the earth. Both during the day and the night the mole does very often emerge. Proof of this is the fact that moles are sometimes eaten by herons, and their remains are often found in the stomach contents of owls. The most likely time to see them above ground is June, when young moles are searching for homes and perhaps preparing to make tunnels.

Another trick of the trade is to go out in the early evening. Dusk is a time of intense activity in the world of nature. Strangely enough, your best chance of seeing a barn owl is in the beam of car headlights. He will come swooping down, looking white and ghostly, as he starts his nightly hunting. Owls of different kinds may be heard at any time of year, in any part of Britain, but numbers are falling, and each bird has a very large territory. Once you have seen an owl in a certain place, you know where to continue looking. You may hear him calling all night. Most of the time he is simply stating who he is. If you hear another owl apparently replying to him, they are not exactiy carrying on a conversation.

They are telling each other to keep to their own patches. Do you think you would like an owl picnic? With plenty of warm clothes, and flasks full of hot drinks, you could stay up all night in a place where you have already heard an owl (perhaps a wood or a churchyard) and mark down all through the night the exact times you heard the owl call.

Another animal often seen in the beam of car headlights is the hare. He seems to be dazzled or hypnotized by the lights, and will run ahead of you for miles, if you drive slowly behind him. But there are more hares about than owls, and they are not so difficult to find by day although dusk is a good time to see them. If you sit quietly in the corner of a field alongside a road where you have already noticed one, you are very likely to see him again cither in the day or the evening. It is said hares are very inquisitive, so that if you do something peculiar, he is bound to come along to investigate. One suggestion is that you should sit in the field with your legs up in the air. The hare will be so puzzled he will be irresistibly drawn to come along to see what is happening – or so it is said. You will be very lucky if you see hares at their maddest, in March. Their odd behaviour then has not been fully explained. Country people sometimes see two of them standing up, apparently boxing, and this may be part of the courtship ritual. Once a hare was seen on her hind legs punching a bullock on the nose, perhaps to protect her young.

At dusk too starling are at their noisiest, and country roosts are even bigger than those in towns. Some of them hold over a million birds. Day after day they follow the same flight paths, arriving in the same places at the same time, and taking a long time to settle down, as they talk or argue all at once. Rooks also roost in great crowds, gathering together in huge numbers in autumn and winter, before converging in what have been called ‘super-roosts’. In winter, before darkness comes, birds visit the garden bird table for a final meal. Robin is usually last to leave, but wrens are also late going to bed. Pheasants may cluck about nearly all night. At almost any time of year many birds like to give a final burst of song, before settling down. Even in February, astonishing full song may be heard. In warmer weather, say in summer, flycatchers will be seen hovering round the garden, especially over compost heaps, catching insects on the wing. Swifts will be taking off, flying out to sea, sleeping as they fly. As other birds quieten clown for the night, the song of the nightingale may be heard. The birds do sing during the day, as well as at night, but it is often difficult to hear them then, with so much other sound going on. Having spent the winter in the African tropics, the male birds arrive about ten days before the females and then compete to attract them, perhaps using song to do so. Kent and East Anglia are places to hear them. Warm still nights in late April and May are best, and although gardens, parks and commons are frequented, a quiet woodland is the most likely place to hear them. Again it is true that once you have found them you are likely to find them there regularly, night after night, and year after year, although sometimes for quite unknown reasons a pair will leave a familiar and long-used site. The nests are well hidden, in thick undergrowth, often on or close to the ground, in thickets or rough patches of shrubby woodland. As agriculture becomes so efficient in using every square inch of land suitable nesting sites are disappearing. The birds are difficult to sec. They keep well away from people, but they may have favourite trees in gardens.

Butterflies disappear long before dark, even on warm summer evenings. The flowers of the day close their petals, but others open and give out fragrance. Night-scented stock, tobacco flowers, evening primroses, valerian, and phlox will all be visited by moths. If you take a lantern outside you will see them dancing; it is their time for flying, feeding, and mating. Most of the Noctuid moths are active only at night. To study them you can paint a sweet sticky liquid on a tree or wooden fence, and then watch them come. A mixture of brown sugar, beer, and rum, used to be recommended, but honey or treacle will do. Put a vertical streak downwards from about eye level, and do it just as the daylight is beginning to fade. Open rides or clearings in woodlands are good places. The moths will come to feed and you can watch them at close quarters with a torch.

HEDGEHOGS ARE ODD

While you are watching moths, you are very likely to hear a hedgehog, again at dusk on warm summer evenings. Almost everything written and said about hedgehogs needs to be tested. There is still much we don’t know about this very odd and eccentric animal. We don’t even know how many there are – estimates have varied from one to twenty-five per acre – and we don’t know whether their numbers are falling or not. Here is a fascinating field of study for the amateur naturalist, especially because hedgehogs are not at all predictable in their behaviour, and can often be seen and heard doing peculiar things at peculiar times.

The best places to find them are dry ditches in fields, parks or gardens, or among coarse grass at the foot of hedges, or in patches of rough grass, often in thick tussocks. They are most active between dusk and about 2 or 2.30 a.m., and from April to October, although these times and dates are very variable. They don’t emerge far from their sleeping places in wet weather, and on dry summer evenings they may wait for the dew to bring out the insects and small animals on which they feed. If you stand quietly by a rough hedge, or walk slowly along with frequent pauses, you may very well hear one rustling through the grass. He may make considerable noise, crashing through leaves, rubbing against bark, and snorting or hissing. Once you know where abouts he lives, you will be able to find him again, as each one stays fairly close to his home area, not usually moving more than a hundred yards away. With a small portable tape recorder it is possible to take down the noise of his travelling, and also his grunts and snorts. Other noises are high-pitched whistles, evidently a form of communication between mother and young, and occasionally perfectly dreadful screams. You may also hear him crunching worms!

Courtship and mating look like a fight between two animals, with both of them pivoting, circling round, and snorting. This has been seen any time from April to September, most usually in May. The young are born after about thirty days, in litters of two to nine, five being usual. At first the mother feeds them herself, and later takes them out for walks, foraging, in line. If a nest is disturbed she may carry them one by one to another. After a month or so they look after themselves. Hedgehogs are fairly easily tamed, and can be induced to unroll by stroking or (it is said) by pouring water over them. Someone once did it with beer and is said to have turned his pet into a lifelong alcoholic. They will come regularly each evening if bread and milk are put out for them, but if they find the dish empty they may throw it about in a tantrum. Several of them may establish a peck order, they may disagree, or they may feed amicably all together. They may have fights with a scrubbing brush, or they may cuddle it. Favourite foods in captivity may include baked beans, mincemeat, cake and puffed wheat; sweet tea or coffee may be liked, and there are stories of them eating chocolate creams, ginger nuts, and blancmange. They can climb, run, and swim, but some of them either can’t or won’t. They are said to steal eggs, drink milk oozing from a cow’s udder, or impale apples on their spines – but you will be lucky if you actually see them doing any of these things. They seem to suffer occasionally from madness or brain damage, and can then be seen running round in frantic circles, always anti-clockwise. Wayward, mysterious, and often bad-tempered creatures.

BADGERS ARE SHY

Much more difficult to study, but even more fascinating, are badgers, also creatures of the night. They are intensely suspicious wary animals. Hedgehogs often take very little notice of your presence, and do not object to ii being studied by torchlight; but badgers will be off and away at the slightest sound or smell of a human being. Occasionally you may see one in the daytime; if you are wandering quietly in undisturbed woodland then you may get a glimpse of one enjoying the sunshine or on his way to his latrine. Otherwise you must look for him in the night-time, again on warm evenings, best of all in June or July, and even then you will not see him unless you have previously located his home.

This is most likely to be in hilly woodland country – a wooded bank of soft soil, neither too crumbly nor too heavy for the animal to work, well above a stream or ditch, with old trees and some undergrowth, but not too far from some open space – this is where to look. Here the badger may make his sett, sometimes called a badger ‘town’, or earth. These may be found almost in any county of Britain, but in East Anglia and Scotland, and some other areas, they are rare. In Cornwall more than a hundred earths have been located. Elsewhere they may be more frequent than is generally known, being often in remote woodland. Farmers and gamekeepers often know where they are, and as many of them are situated on landed estates, their owners too are often aware of them. There may be several setts fairly close together, and some of them may be hundreds of years old. Often several different families use the same setts, or visit each other in their homes.

On the ground, one may see several large holes, sometimes under the roots of trees. There may be four, five, six or more entrances, but it seems that one of them will be the main door, more constantly in use than the others. Underground these entrances lead to an astonishing series of passages and rooms, from which great piles of earth have been excavated. Dry bedding is regularly taken into the earths, and damp or dirty bedding removed. These piles of dry ferns and grass often have a faint musty smell, typical of the badger. From the doors lead paths in different directions, often well worn, and indeed often used as paths by human beings, although from time to time they may disappear underneath a tree or some other obstacle the human has to skirt. These paths lead to other entrances, or to drinking water, or to the latrines used by all the animals. These consist of a series of small pits dug in the ground. As each is filled fresh ones are started.

The animals are extremely engaging to watch, if you are able to do this. Again, a warm summer evening; dusk; take up your position against a tree, or preferably up in it, if you can be comfortable there for hours at a time; and wait. A cautious sniffing may be heard; the boar may raise his head, beautifully striped in black and white; when he is satisfied everything is safe, he will emerge and start scratching himself. A few minutes later the sow may follow, and then the cubs; but the slightest suspicion will send them back into the ground. The boar may move off to the latrine, while mother and young play. Later, if all is safe, they will go off hunting; it is impossible to follow them, as they hear the slightest sound. If a large sett is being watched, it is essential to have a sentinel at each hole, to see how many animals emerge, and what times they return. Before they finally retreat, the young ones will certainly have a game – king of the castle, tag, or some other recognizable romp. They even have regular playgrounds! They spend much time scratching, and cleaning themselves. The mother trains her offspring diligently, and regularly ‘combs’ them for fleas and other parasites. Food is both meat and vegetable; moles, rats, beetles, and worms may be taken; rarely, a lamb or chickens.

THE DAWN CHORUS

So far, on a warm night, you may have been able to tape record hedgehogs, and photograph badgers. As dawn draws near, you will need the tape recorder again. All through the night there are strange sounds – rustlings, foxes barking (more frequently in the early part of the year, when they find their mates), owls hooting, and bats twittering, if you can hear them. Just before dawn, as it is growing light, the dawn chorus of birds begins. It is this you may wish to record.

Before doing so, you need to know the various songs of different birds, to be able to sort them out, and you need to get into position very early. By 4 o’clock, or even earlier (Greenwich Mean Time) birds are moving about, stretching, getting ready for the day; and then they sing. Late April, or early May, is the time. What you will hear depends completely on the area where you live, and what part of the country it is. The following times were once recorded by a woodland edge in Bedfordshire, in April. 4.15 a.m. Nightingale

Woodcock

Skylark

Cock Pheasant

Crow

French or red-legged Partridge

Song Thrush

Magpie 4.20 a.m. Grasshopper Warbler

Cuckoo

Litde Owl

Tawny Owl

Lady Amhurst’s Pheasant

Whitethroat

Wood Pigeon 4.35 a-m- Blackbird 4.40 a.m. Hedge Sparrow 4.45 a.m. Yellowhammer 4.50 a.m. Wren 4.58 a.m. Coal Tit 5.2 a.m. Black Gap 5.15 a.m. Nuthatch

Gold Crest

The list might be quite different elsewhere, but it is always worth getting up early for. Once you feel sure you can identify the song of so many different birds, you might arrange with a friend in a different part of the country to get up early one morning when you can also do it, and both take notes of what you hear. You would both have to jot down weather conditions – wet or dry, windy or still, and temperatures – and then compare notes.

If you can ever borrow a small portable tape machine, as suggested, you will find it a fascinating business, making recordings of wild life. It’s more difficult than one might think, to get good recordings, but it is particularly useful for bird song, because having once got your recording you can get an expert to help you identify the birds – this is why it is a good idea to try to record the dawn chorus.

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