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September 2013

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Hawthorn berries, September bird food, Sheila Sims
Hawthorn berries, September bird food, Sheila Sims

Where are all the wasps? At this time of year they are usually buzzing around, eating our fruit and causing a lot of hand flapping.

The cold weather in the spring and early summer meant that there was not sufficient food for the queen to get into good enough condition to produce eggs and she probably died before she could achieve this, so very few adult wasps.

Ladybirds have also been affected by the weather and not many have been spotted (sorry!) this year.
One insect that has done well is the Crane Fly, or daddy-long-legs as we call it, again due to weather conditions. Last year’s wet summer led to a surge in Leatherjackets, the larvae of Crane Flies, and they survived in large numbers. They will now have turned into the adult flies and will be laying their eggs in the ground. These will hatch out in two to three weeks and the Leatherjackets will proceed to feed, severing the grass just below ground level. They are voracious feeders and cause a great deal of damage to hay fields.

Geese returning for the winter, Mike Sims
Geese returning for the winter, Mike Sims

Migrating birds will be starting to leave their northern breeding grounds and heading south for the winter. Many can be seen flying off the Norfolk coast and geese are starting to return to winter here; Cley and Titchwell are good places to see them. Also, increasingly observed from our beaches, are members of the whale family (Cetaceans.) Harbour Porpoises, Minke Whales and Bottle-nosed Dolphins have been seen, Trimingham and Hemsby being top viewing places.
Ivy can be a nuisance, when it covers trees and breaks into buildings, but it is an essential source of nectar in the autumn when not much else is in flower. Bees, stocking up for the winter, will feed on ivy in great numbers. Shall we be kind and leave some plants in places where they will not do any harm?
It’s a sad, conflicting thing that the numbers of animals killed on our roads is often an indication as to how well a particular species is surviving. This is certainly true of one of our best loved mammals – the Hedgehog. How many casualties have you seen in the last few years? Not many, I’m sure. Their habit of curling into balls when threatened is no defence against heavy metal and the lack of little bodies is a sure sign that they are in decline.
As always, when numbers of a particular animal are decreasing, there is more than one reason. Prolonged dry weather, modern farming methods, use of pesticides and over-tidy gardens, mean that the invertebrates that hedgehogs feed on are not always available. The increase in badgers in some areas has also had some effect; they eat the same things and they also eat hedgehogs. Foxes, certainly in towns, play a part. Some have learnt to wait patiently until their prey uncurls and then attack from behind.

Hand-reared hoglet, Mike Sims
Hand-reared hoglet, Mike Sims

As a veterinary nurse I saw many hedgehog casualties and discovered a great deal about them. As with all small, nocturnal animals, they are often difficult to study in the wild but while they were in-patients they told me a lot about themselves and, among other things, I was able to observe the peculiar habit known as ‘self-anointing.’ If a hedgehog comes across something that smells strange and strong, it will lick and chew the object and then produce lots of froth from its mouth, with which it will coat its spines, going into amazing contortions as it covers itself with the saliva. Why it does this is not fully understood but among the theories are, that it is disguising its scent or covering itself with a toxin to avoid predation, or simply that it gets some sort of ‘high’ from the unusual smell.
One that convalesced in our large aviary taught us that they eat birds, and that they are very partial to eggs!
A client’s dog disturbed a nest of newly born hoglets and sadly killed the mother. The three young, looking for all the world like naked baby birds, with fresh umbilical cords still attached, were brought in for us to look after. At this young age they were not prickly, of course, otherwise Mum would have a rather painful time giving birth, but within two hours tiny white spines started to appear, to be replaced later by darker ones.

Rearing these babies was a great pleasure even though they needed feeding every two hours, day and night. I bought milk from a local goat farm and they did very well. As they grew up they moved on to ‘hodge burgers’ which I made from tinned dog meat, mixed with dried bird food containing fruit and insects; there was no commercial hedgehog food available, then, as there is now. Autumn came and they constructed their own nests from hay and leaves and hibernated for the winter.

The following spring, when they emerged, I fed them for a month and then, after making sure they were fit and healthy, released the two females on a friend’s land and the male at another site to avoid interbreeding, although I imagine this must sometimes happen in the wild. Hopefully they survived to produce more baby hedgehogs, well away from inquisitive dogs, but I’ll never know.

So what can we do to help our hedgehogs?

At this time of year they are starting to build up fat reserves in readiness for hibernation, so should we feed them? There is a commercial food called ‘Spikes Dinner’ that is specially formulated for hedgehogs, but the problem with putting out food at night is that you don’t know who is getting it. I think the answer is, if you see one, put a dish of food in front of it, not too much as this will discourage natural foraging. It may start to appear at the same time each night if it knows it will get a treat but no cow’s milk, please, it causes digestive upsets.

Be careful in your garden. Move piles of waste before burning; many creatures, including hedgehogs, find cover in these. Check netting regularly as animals can become entangled. Turn over compost gently and look before you mow or strim. Provide ramps in ponds and pools so that hedgehogs can leave safely. Remember that they will often travel a good distance each night while foraging, so create gaps at the bottom of your fences so that they can move about freely. Leave woodpiles for nesting and hibernation and forget pesticides – go organic!

Events this month include:-
• Warden led bird and nature walks – Cley.
• Rocks and relics (fossil hunting) – West Runton.
• Children’s wildlife watch and reptile hunt –Royden Common.
• Walk from Cockthorpe Common to Stiffkey.
Details, or 01603 625540.
• Wildlife walks –Titchwell. 01485  210779.

© Sheila Sims 2013