Although the weather can be a bit wild in March, it is officially the beginning of spring. Some bulbs think it started earlier and have been pushing their shoots out of the ground for a couple of months and many are in flower. Buds on trees are breaking into leaf and insects and reptiles are emerging from their winter hiding places. Frogs and toads are making their way to the ponds where they themselves were born, to mate and spawn. As we’ve talked about before, they are in danger of being killed if they have to cross a road which is on the route to their pond. If you would like to volunteer to help amphibians get across safely, please contact ‘Toad watch’ on email@example.com or 01603 812472 for details of evening patrols in your area. Try to resist rehoming spawn into your garden pond, you could be introducing disease and if you have fish they will soon find a taste for the hatching tadpoles. Better to leave the eggs where they were laid.
Other animals which will be waking up from hibernation are snails. The commonest snail, the one you are most likely to come across, is the Garden snail. Like the majority of land snails they are hermaphrodites; they have both male and female sex organs. Although they can fertilise themselves, especially if they are threatened and feel the need to reproduce quickly, they prefer to mate with another. The normal way that Garden snails are formed is to curl to the right and this puts their sex organs in the correct position to mate but there was one famous snail which curled to the left. He was named Jeremy, after that other well known ‘lefty’ and a search was on to find a suitable left inclined mate. (For the snail, you understand.) It made the national news and two were found but unfortunately they both ignored Jeremy and mated with each other. Ah-h-h! (All the off-spring were right curled). Jeremy did eventually mate and his partner produced snailets but they never knew their father, Jeremy passed away before they were born. Courtship with Garden snails involves touching with their tentacles and the firing of a ‘love dart’, which is a hard, calcium spike, into each other’s bodies. Then both snails deposit sperm into their mates to fertilise the eggs which each carries; they then go their own ways. When laying time comes the snails dig holes in the soil and deposit the eggs which can number up to eighty and they may lay several batches in a year. Not all will hatch: some get washed away by rain and some are eaten by predators and those that do make it are very vulnerable while they are young and fragile. Like all snails they have a single foot which is, in fact, the bottom surface of their bodies. Both snails and slugs produce mucus which helps them move and protects them from drying out in hot weather. So is that silvery trail in your garden caused by a slug or a snail? If it is continuous it is a slug, if broken, a snail. But it doesn’t really matter – they will both eat your plants! Garden snails often hibernate in groups in damp, hidden places and they will seal the entrance to their shells with mucus which hardens into a protective door, keeping moisture in. An interesting fact about these animals is that they have a homing instinct. Experiments have been carried out which involved painting numbers on the shells and then moving the snails to another place. They all found their way back! It seems that their sense of direction can be confused if they are put more than 20 metres (approximately 65½ feet) away from their home but not over the fence into your neighbour’s garden!
The other snail you will often find is the Banded snail. This has been the subject of many studies because of the different colours and band arrangements. (Not the musical kind, snails can’t hear.) The bands on the shells can vary considerably and some of these animals are dark and some pale because natural selection is at work. Those that live in woodland tend to be dark because the ground and tree trunks are usually brown, ensuring that they blend into the background. Whereas the Banded snails which live in lighter coloured habitats, such as grassland, are paler and will avoid being obvious to predators. One that really loves a nice juicy snail is the Song thrush and it is adept at getting to the edible bit. It will use something hard, usually a stone, and bash the snail until it breaks the shell and often uses the same stone over and over again. If you find a lot of broken shells around a stone or on a step, this will be what is known as a thrush’s anvil.
The Song thrush is one of the many species of birds that is in decline, in fact it is on the red list as of serious conservation concern. This is partly due to the changes in farming practices, soil management and the loss of hedges. Mixed farming, with grazing pasture land, provides good feeding grounds for thrushes, whereas arable farming does not support as many of these birds. Although efforts are being made to plant new hedges, we still see large fields that are hedge free because they get in the way of the machinery and take up what could be productive land. Farmers were instructed to remove hedges after the Second World War because growing food was naturally the priority but thrushes lost a lot of their nesting sites.
Another bird which is on the red list is the starling, which, if you have ever seen them flocking in the evening before roosting, seems unlikely. They form great clouds consisting of thousands of birds which move in undulating spirals, creating amazing shapes in the sky, before sinking on to their roosting site. This is one of nature’s great sights and is known as a ‘murmuration’. They will roost on buildings, trees and in reeds and this incredible acrobatic spectacle takes place at, among many other places, Strumpshaw Fen, six miles from Norwich.
Tony sent me an email asking about the starlings that were feeding on his lawn; he was interested to know what they were finding. Starlings have an omnivorous diet and will feed on fruit, seeds, garbage and many invertebrates. What these birds were looking for on Tony’s lawn were worms and grubs but mainly Leatherjackets. These are the larvae of Crane flies and they feed on the roots of grass; Leatherjackets cause a great deal of damage to pasture and lawns so Tony’s starlings were doing a welcome job. They have strong beaks and are able prod into the ground and then part their bills to create a larger hole to find their meal; you can see these holes when the birds have finished feeding.
Nature is in trouble and we are losing wildlife and plants at an alarming rate. So what does that say about ourselves? We are the present guardians of our planet and although there is a greater awareness, in some of us, of the damage we are doing, the growing population, with associated built up areas and pollution in many forms, are problems. We must try to find a solution or it will be a grim world for future generations.
Things to do this month include:
• Inspiring the next generation.
• Beach clean.
• Nature studies.
All at Cley Marshes.
• Holkham Park and Lake.
www.norfolkwildlifetrust.org.uk or 01603 625540.
• Wildlife photography workshop – firstname.lastname@example.org
© Sheila Sims 2018