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December 2013

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If the ground is not frozen, winter is a good time to create a wildlife pond. As soon as you introduce water into your garden, all sorts of creatures will arrive. In the spring, insects such as diving beetles, pond skaters and water boatmen will find their new home, as will frogs, toads and newts. Birds will drink and bathe, and you may even get visits from deer and other mammals. Even a very small pond will attract many animals but whatever the size, make sure you include ramps or pebble heaps to provide easy exit places.

Holly Berries Sheila Sims
Holly Berries, Sheila Sims

Holly berries – here today, gone tomorrow! One minute the trees are laden, making us think there will be plenty for Christmas decorations, the next time you look they’ve all gone! Winter thrushes, Fieldfares, Mistles and Redwings, have had the lot. They arrive early in the morning and have a hearty breakfast before we have even opened our eyes. However, you may find that one tree still bears all its berries late into the winter. This may be because a Mistle Thrush, sometimes with a mate, has decided that this one is out of bounds to other birds and will fiercely guard it, chasing off anyone else who tries to snatch a snack.

It has been a bumper year for all types of berries, along with fruit, nuts and fungi. It seems that anything that can produce, did it in spectacular abundance and wildlife has benefited from this wonderful harvest. They aren’t the only ones; Michael is making wine from everything that grows. Apples, courgettes, gooseberries, bananas, blackberries and whatever else he can find. Swede? Mmm… I’ll let you know about that one!

Did you see the Humpback Whale that visited the Norfolk coast?  There could have been more than one, as they tend to travel in loose groups called pods. They spend the summer around Iceland and Norway and winter in African waters. They were feeding on the large herring shoals that were in our coastal waters this autumn and the activity also attracted Gannets that were diving around the whale. The Humpback can be up to 16 metres (52 feet) long  and weighs 30 – 50 tons. Who’d be a Herring!

Early morning otter
Mike Sims
Early morning otter, Mike Sims

The watery habitats of Norfolk provide ideal living conditions for otters and now that much of the waterside vegetation has died down, this is a good time to see them. They are mainly nocturnal, dawn and dusk are the best times to find them, but they are also often active during the day.The otter is one of a large family of animals called Mustelids which also includes badgers, stoats, weasels, polecats, pine martens and mink. It has a dark brown coat and can weigh up to 17 kgs (over 37 lbs) and the male is usually larger than the female.

Otters tend to be solitary animals, unless they are courting or a female is with her young. Each individual has its own territory which may be as much as 25 miles long, the average being about 11 miles, but a male and female’s often overlap. Breeding can take place at any time of the year and after a gestation period of about 60 days, one to four pups are born. They will stay with their mother for up to a year, after which they become independent and seek their own territories. They are very playful animals, diving for pebbles and creating slides down muddy banks and in snow. An otter may have several resting places within its territory, some above ground in dense undergrowth, or riverside boulders and some, called holts, underground. These can be cavities under tree roots, enlarged rabbit burrows and they sometimes have ones in banks that can only be entered from under water.

Fish form the main part of the diet, up to 80%, but they will also take amphibians, insects, birds and small mammals. Otters hunt mainly by sight but their plentiful whiskers can detect vibrations made by fish, enabling them to catch their prey in murky waters and they have the ability to close their ears and nostrils when swimming. Most of the hunting takes place at night when many fish become torpid and are more easily caught. As you can imagine, otters are not popular with anglers and fish farmers!

Even if you are not lucky enough to see one, you may come across signs that an otter has passed through. Half eaten fish will sometimes be abandoned at the water’s edge, although these will quickly be scavenged by birds or foxes. Droppings (spraint) are left throughout an otter’s territory and are often placed on raised places such as boulders or ledges under bridges; they are black and tarry when fresh, becoming like little heaps of ash as they age. These will contain remains of prey, including fish bones and scales, feathers and frog or mammal bones. You may also see tracks in mud or snow, often showing the webs between the five toes that indicate that this is a swimming animal. The other tracks you may see in the same habitat could be left by mink, there are plenty of these around, but these are smaller with obvious claw marks.
There is now a healthy population of otters in Norfolk, but this beautiful animal very nearly became extinct in England. With the coming of industrialisation in the nineteenth century, rivers became heavily polluted, poisoning fish and consequently affecting their predators; otter hunting was also popular. The decline increased in the nineteen fifties and sixties due to the use of agricultural pesticides, which drained into water courses, and by 1980 the otter had all but disappeared from most of the country.

The banning of dangerous chemicals, improvement of habitat and legal protection has ensured that the otter has made a successful recovery; the release of captive bred animals has also contributed to their numbers.
As a final note this month, I did hope that I may be able to report a genuine sighting of a Norfolk ‘big cat.’ Late the other night, as I waited for the dogs to have their bedtime trot around the garden, I heard a low, rumbling growl coming from one of the outbuildings. I grabbed my camera and fearlessly opened the stable door. No big cat, I’m afraid – not even a small one – just Michael’s wine bubbling and gurgling away!

Happy Christmas to you all!

Things to do this month include:
• Many indoor events – wildlife talks, slides and photos. or call 01603 625540.
• Fabulous Wildlife – RSPB reserve at Titchwell. Email or call 01485 210779.
• Deer Discovery Walk – Holkam Nature Reserve. or call 07828 290703.