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Wildlife Diary: March 2016


Week beginning 7th March:   whats going on down there?

There are several Badger setts in Fineshade and some of them now have very fresh excavations – piles of freshly dug earth and clay piled outside some of the entrances. For example, these photos show earthworks at one large long-established sett. There are 13 recently used entrances to the sett, with three of the entrances having piles like this outside them.  With the others there were fresh tracks, and signs that new bedding material had been brought in. We wondered what the Badgers down below our feet were up to. How many animals were there? It’s nearly spring, so is it mating time? What’s going on to spark the new excavation work? 

A web search revealed that, for a large sett like this, there may be as many as 20 Badgers below ground living in a family or social group that is sometimes known as a clan. Often it is only the dominant female (or sow) in a group who produces a litter, with usually two or three cubs. But these are usually born in February - there were most likely young Badgers being quietly suckled by their mother down below the ground. thisa week They will probably emerge for the first time when they are 8 weeks old.


There’s a Badger calendar here where you can find out what Badgers are up to throughout the year. For March it says that “Badgers are more active as the weather warms up and more food is available. There is a large increase in the number of Badgers killed on the roads in the spring months. Cubs still depend completely on their mothers.” So this increase in activity explains the recent excavations, and also the well used tracks and overflowing latrines(!) - Badgers are fastidious about their living conditionssett clea


In the 1990s the Forestry Commission offered public badger watches at two of the Fineshade setts and they were followed in later years by the RSPB, supported by the North Northants Badger Group (NNBG).  Fineshade was also used as a site for the release by NNBG of injured or orphaned badgers – an artificial sett was constructed from where the badgers could be released back into the wild.


Apparently some large badger setts can be used for centuries – it’s intriguing to think that the original occupants of the Top Lodge farmhouse could have been looking at this same sett back in the 18th century

Week beginning 14th March:   No trouble with lichens


There are some trees in Fineshade that even at this time of year are showing lots of colour on their bare branches and twigs. For example, this Oak’s golden colouring really brightened up this late winter day.


Get up close and you discover that it’s not the tree itself but something growing on it – lichens – lots of them and different sorts too. 


Not knowing much about lichens we did some research and came up with a few facts that interested us – so we’d thought we’d share them along with these pictures taken today.

Lichens add another layer of diversity and beauty to the wood with their different colours and shapes

In 2008 residents organized a survey of the lichens on the veteran trees in what was then the Fineshade Community Orchard. Local expert Rose Pride found 17 different types of lichen – testament to the purity of Fineshade air!

  • Lichens look as if they may be plants but they are not! In fact, a lichen is not a single organism at all, but rather a combination of two organisms - a fungus and algal cells living together intimately.


  • In British English "lichen" may be correctly pronounced in two ways: either the same way as the verb "liken" or to rhyme with "kitchen". (In the US, of course, it’s different, only “liken” will do there.)


  • Lichens are making a comeback in Britain. They are particularly sensitive to air pollution and, since the Clean Air Act of 1956, levels of sulphur dioxide released in Britain have fallen significantly, allowing lichens to re-colonise old haunts.


  • Lichens may be very long-lived, with some individual lichen colonies estimated to be 9000 years old.


  • Lichens are not parasitic. They do no harm at all to the tree or structure that they grow on, taking no nutrients from their hosts.


  • If you clear-fell an ancient woodland, almost all the plant and tree species will survive. But the rare lichens (along with mosses and most invertebrates) will almost all disappear, and it may take many centuries for them to return (if ever), depending on how far it is to the next population.


  • There are 1873 species listed in The Lichens of Great Britain and Ireland. The world lichen list probably stands at around 17,000


  • Historically they were extremely important sources of dyes for clothing.


  • Different lichen species have been measured to grow as slowly as 0.5 mm, and as fast as 0.5 meter per year.


  • Lichens are eaten by many different cultures across the world. In the past Iceland moss (Cetraria islandica) was an important human food in northern Europe, and was cooked as a bread, porridge, pudding, soup, or salad.


  • Some lichens are used in by model railway enthusiasts as a material for making miniature trees and shrubs.


  • It is estimated that 6% of Earth's land surface is covered by lichen.


Lots more about lichens here and here.


(The title is a reference to the novel "Trouble with Lichen" by the great sci-fi writer John Wyndham.)

Week beginning 21st March:   the screamer of the woods

Thanks very much indeed to
Kurt Hellwing for these pictures of Jays taken during a recent visit to Fineshade

It’s the vernal equinox and as the days lengthen, bird song in the woods increases. It’s still only the resident song-birds that we are hearing – thrushes, robins, dunnocks and tits are now coming into full voice. But before the end of the month they will be joined by the songs of first of the summer migrants – the well-named Chiffchaff’s two-note song and, soon afterwards, the distinctive reel of the Grasshopper Warbler.


Not all birds sing in the same way, and the Jay’s harsh screaming calls could certainly not be called a song. This colourful but rather shy member of the crow family is announcing its presence forcefully at the moment. It’s Latin name (Garrulus glandarius) seems most appropriate as does its Gaelic name ‘sgreuchag choille’ (try saying it!), which means screamer of the woods.


Jays also mimic other birds and at Fineshade, if you you hear the twit-twoo of the Tawny Owl during day-light hours, look carefully and you may well find that it’s actually coming from a Jay. They also copy the whistling calls of the resident Red Kites and the mewing of Buzzards – sometimes mixing up the two in a rather confusing way!


Jays are quite long lived and don’t breed until they are two or three years old. At this time of the year they gather together in very noisy groups that probably allow unpaired birds to find a mate.


Week beginning 28th March:  spring arrived... before the storm


It's hard to miss the Chiffchaff's arrival. The tiny males announce to the whole wood that they are back, with their chiff and their chaff, over and over, from high up in the trees. Even though there are no leaves yet, they are still quite difficult to actually see, so Kurt Hellwing did well to get this picture of one of the first arrivals on Easter Sunday morning. 

Chiffchaff song -
00:00 / 00:00

This bird had probably migrated from somewhere around the Mediterranean - quite a journey for such a tiny bird - it weighs about 9g, less than a £1 coin. But their arrival, at about the same time each year, is always keenly anticipated.


Also appearing, but in a very different way were the fragile, minute flowers of Gagea lutea, the Yellow Star of Bethlehem, and one of Fineshade's rarest plants. These had emerged from bulbs, hidden away underground for most of the year and they tend to grow in small loose colonies. Brian Laney showed us these flowers a year ago (details here) so we knew roughly where to look. Even so, it took a while of careful searching through the leaf litter of the forest floor before we spotted the first plant - a single bright floret on a wind-battered stem. After that it was a little easier and two more were found nearby. Again they were single florets, nowhere near as obvious as the plants that had emerged last year. Finally a fourth plant with three florets was spotted (picture below left).


Unlike the very common Chiffchaff, Gagea lutea occurs in few locations in the UK (see map here). But both species are certain indicators of the turning of the season: spring, it seemed, had come.


But then came Storm Katie, lashing the wood with more torrential rain overnight and battering everything with fearsome winds during Monday morning. 


How does a tiny bird survive this? And will the fragile stems and petals of the Yellow Star of Bethlehem still be peeping through the leaf litter when the weather turns and spring returns to the wood?

Update, 31st March.  
At least two of the flower spikes survived until today - and, on a 2-hour walk, 15 Chiffchaffs were heard.

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