Because of the mild winter, as well as spring flowers being advanced, many trees and hedges will already have developed buds which should be bursting into leaf by now.
One, which I’m sure we all remember from school days, is the ‘sticky bud’ from the Horse chestnut tree. Every classroom had some bud-bearing twigs in jam jars of water so that we could watch them develop into leaves. The stickiness is a gummy sap that glues together the scales which cover the bud. This is part of the trees defence system, and protects against frost damage, bacterial or fungal attack and will trap any insect which may settle on the bud in search of a snack.
Plants have many ways of protecting themselves and one I’m sure we all know about is the very common Stinging nettle. Its leaves are covered in fine hairs that when touched, even very lightly, break and release a painful irritant. Euphorbias, also known as spurges, will exude latex-like sap from even the smallest wound which can cause a burning rash and would ensnare any insect that tried to make a meal of it. Other plants, thistles, roses, gorse and briar, being just a few, defend themselves by growing thorns or prickles to deter grazing animals. Some, foxgloves and nightshades for instance, produce toxins which make them poisonous to eat and others are unpalatable because they have a bad taste.
Smell is also used as a deterrent; lavender, mint, basil and tansy all contain oils that have strong pungent scents which are effective against insect attacks. Mimicry is useful: there is a type of passion flower which produces small, yellow bumps on its leaves and stalks. Butterflies have very good eyesight and when a female sees these she is fooled into thinking that a previous visitor has laid eggs on the plant. She would not want to lay where someone else already has, especially as some caterpillars are carnivorous and may eat her eggs or emerging larvae, so she flies on. This way the plant protects itself from being eaten.
Plants are not the only things to be advanced after our mild winter. ‘Toad Watch’ patrols were out as early as January this year to help migrating amphibians across roads as they make their way to their breeding ponds. Co-ordinator, John Heaser, told me that an early start usually means fewer eggs which, obviously, means fewer toads. Better news, though, is that in Little Melton, where he is based, there seems to be a healthy population of Great crested newts, which, as we’ve talked about before, are now quite rare. If you are interested in helping with the patrols, ‘Toad Watch’ is in need of volunteers and can be reached at email@example.com or 01603 812472.
I’m sure we are all aware of the sad business that has occurred along our coast recently; the stranding of Sperm whales. Six of these magnificent animals have died on British shores in the last few weeks and more on European beaches. There have been twenty-nine in all and they are thought to have all belonged to the same pod. Sperm whales are deep sea animals and maybe they became confused in the comparatively shallow waters. Although it has been suggested that they may have been following a food source, namely squid, into the North Sea, there was evidence that they had eaten very little. This would have caused dehydration because, being mammals, they cannot drink sea water but obtain their fluids from their food; if they don’t eat, they don’t drink. Another point that has been made is that wind farms, which create a lot of underwater noise and vibration, could have confused the whales’ very sensitive sonar ability; they pick up echoes from their pod members and other sea animals, food for instance. This is how they communicate and any other sonar waves could cause disorientation. This will also include military operations, ships’ engines and anything that causes a disturbance. But the fact is that whale strandings have been happening for hundreds of years, long before wind farms and long before ships had engines, so who knows why these animals die in this way.
Other strangers that were found on a Norfolk beach last December were two Lesser octopuses. These animals normally inhabit the rocky western coast and it is a mystery as to why they should have wandered into the sandy Wash. A very helpful gentleman at the Hunstanton Sealife Sanctuary told me that both animals were female and it is possible that they became exhausted after laying eggs. Although they were well cared for at the sanctuary, unfortunately they did not survive.
More sea news is that the chalk reef off the North Norfolk coast has now been declared a protected area and any activities that may damage the reef, or the wildlife there, will be illegal.
Thanks to Kev and Gill, in Cromer, who emailed me to say that they saw an ermine stoat at Sculthorpe Moor Nature Reserve. This was confirmed by the warden who said this winter-white animal had been seen several times. A wonderful sighting, it must have been very exciting; I wish I’d been there. As I wrote last month, animals and birds that turn white in the winter tend to be more common in snowy, northern parts but ermine stoats do sometimes occur in more southerly counties. They have been recorded in Norfolk, Suffolk, Essex and even as far south as Hampshire.
A relative of the stoat, the polecat, became a rarity in England due to trapping during the 18th and 19th century. By the 20th century they were only resident in Wales and some regions of Scotland but records show that they have now spread across the country and have been found in Norfolk. March is the breeding season for polecats and, because they are preoccupied, they can become road casualties at this time. The Vincent Wildlife Trust is interested to hear of any sightings of this animal and if you should come across a dead one, and you have facilities to freeze the carcass, (not alongside that tasty lasagne, of course!) they will send you a box in which to post it. They can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org or 01531 636441.
Ferrets, which are the domesticated descendants of polecats, are used to hunt rabbits and often escape. Some are albinos but some look very like the true, wild polecats and experts need to examine the DNA to establish which is which; the skull measurements are also different. Sometimes abandoned young or injured polecats end up at ferret rescue centres because of the similarities in appearance but Claire Shuttleworth, of STA Ferret Rescue, told me that they behave in a very different way and also move differently. Unlike ferrets, which are sociable and like to live in pairs or groups, the wild polecat is a solitary animal, except when a female has kits when they will be together. The average litter size is 3 – 7 but can be a little as 2 or as many as 12. The den is either a burrow, which the animal will dig for itself, a disused rabbit hole or a crevice in rocks. Polecats are prime carnivores and will feed on a variety of prey. rabbits, small mammals, birds, reptiles and amphibians and even earth worms will all feature in the diet. They also store food and will bite through the spinal cords of frogs, paralysing them to ensure a live future dinner. (Gruesome, but we all have to eat!) Being mainly nocturnal polecats are rarely seen and, unless they sadly become road casualties, their droppings or the remains of a meal are often the only ways of knowing that they have been around.
Things to do this month include:
• Daffodil mile – Long Lane, Honing. Starts at the church.
• Minsmere specialities – wildlifetoursandeducation.co.uk or 01263 576995.
• Hoe bird walk, Easter at Cley, Sandringham Country Park and many guided walks – www.norfolkwildlifetrust.org.uk or 01603 625540.
© Sheila Sims 2016