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September's wildlife

September 2nd.  Another probable Dormouse nest


Since the rediscovery of Dormice in Fineshade in 2014, there has been a programme of monitoring carried out by volunteers working for the Bedfordshire, Cambridgeshire and Northamptonshire Wildlife Trust. The aim is to find out just how widespread this rare and endangered mammal is in the wood.  Over 50 dormouse nest boxes similar to the one shown on the left have been erected, with Forestry Commission approval, in the north-east and south-west parts of the wood.  These boxes are checked for nests at monthly intervals by volunteers with the appropriate licence issued by Natural England. Last October a female was discovered in one of the nest boxes and then last week a probable dormouse nest was found in a box in a different location.  

Dormice, unlike birds and Wood Mice, weave pieces of stripped honeysuckle bark into a ball during the summer and then give birth to up to seven young.  It was a partially built structure of that type which was discovered last week. This strengthens the belief that the elusive Dormouse is actually widespread in Fineshade at the extreme northrern edge of its range.


However, in the central part of the wood, the area where Forest Holidays (FH) and the Forestry Commission (FC) wished to develop a holiday camp, the only dormouse monitoring that has been allowed was actually carried out in 2015 by Forest Holidays' own surveyors - and the results of that survey have, to the best of our knowledge not been made public. A Freedom of Information request to the Forestry Commission revealed that in April they did not have the results of that survey and, for some reason, FC had not asked FH for the results. Perhaps they have done do now?

It is surely time now for Forest Holidays to reveal what they found when they carried out a new batch of ecological surveys on this part of the Public Forest Estate last year. Are there Dormice present in the central part of the wood too and if so what steps are FC taking to conserve this endangered species ?


September 6th.  Breeding Hobbies

Hidden away, deep in Fineshade Wood and well away from the hurly-burly of Top Lodge, a pair of small falcons have been quietly breeding. The Hobby is about the same size as a Kestrel but has long pointed wings, making it look a bit like a large Swift. It is the only migrant bird of prey here, visiting Fineshade for the summer and spending the winter months in Africa south of the Sahara. It does not arrive until late April and often stays until early October, being one of the latest birds to breed. This week a young Hobby was heard begging for food from its parents, long after most young birds have become independent.


Falco subbuteo is the Latin name for the Hobby. Subbuteo means “smaller than a buzzard” - certainly an accurate description - but many people associate the word with the table football game. It is said that the designer of the game was a birdwatcher and his favourite bird was a Hobby.

Hobby in flight Guy Pilkington

Adult Hobby. Photo: Guy Pilkington

Hobbies prey on large insects (especially dragonflies) and small birds (especially young Swallows and Martins), catching them in the air with their talons and then often transferring the prey to the beak in flight. Delayed breeding means that there is plenty of available prey to feed to the young.  Another advantage of breeding late in the season is that the Hobby can take over nests that have been built and vacated by other species – particularly Carrion Crows.


Hobbies have been recorded nesting in the same part of Fineshade every year since 2011. It is not known whether it is the same pair coming back every year – the BTO report that typical lifespan of the bird is 5 years, though the maximum age from ringing data is nearly 15 years. Earlier this summer the Fineshade nest was located again – high up in a different Crow’s nest – and the heads of two youngsters, fluffy and white, could be seen. This week’s sighting of a fledged juvenile is good news and means that there has been successful breeding here again.


Hobbies are just one of a list of rather special breeding birds in Fineshade Wood – the species contributes 3 points to the 44 which make Fineshade easily worthy of notification as a Site of Special Scientific Interest – you can see the complete list of species and read the argument here.

Update, 12th September

Two birds were seen today, calling noisily as they flew high above the wood. One was a juvenile and the second was probably an adult bird.


September 11th.  A giant caterpillar

Caterpillar in Fineshade Wood

We are very grateful to Andy Glover for sharing this picture of the magnificent caterpillar he saw during a recent visit to Fineshade.  It's the larva of the Privet Hawk-moth, the largest of the UK's resident moths with a wingspan up to 12cm.

The caterpillar is also huge - up to 8.5cm long and is most striking, being bright green with mauve and white stripes along the side. It has what looks like a curious curved black 'horn'. In fact this is at the tail end - the head of the caterpillar is actually at the bottom of the picture.

The caterpillars are usually seen in July and August, turning pinkish as they mature before burrowing into the ground and turning into a chrysalis to overwinter.  Then the very large moths emerge in June and July to feed on Privet and, in Fineshade, on Ash leaves. The moths are on the wing for a short time - just up to 5 weeks.

The specimen on the right came to a moth trap in a Fineshade garden in June

Privet Hawk-moth Fineshade Wood

September 16th.  In search of Belladonna

Twenty-five years ago Richard the Forestry Commission Ranger showed us Belladonna, or Deadly Nightshade growing in the eastern part of Fineshade Wood quite close to the Cathedral Tree. It’s a perennial plant and continued to grow there for many years – the pictures of the lusciously tempting black berries here were taken in 2008.


Not having seen it for some time, this week an expedition was mounted to try and locate it again, but the area where it previously grew is now choked with brambles making access effectively impossible.

Fineshade Wood Belladonna nightshade
Fineshade Wood Belladonna nightshade

The name Belladonna derives from Italian and means “pretty woman”, but there are many other names for the plant including Devil’s Berries and the rather quaint Naughty Mans Cherries. It is one of the most toxic of all plants and the Roman Emperor Augustus was said to have been killed by a dose of Belladonna administered by his wife, Lydia.  As well as being used as a poison it has also been used, sparingly, in herbal medicine and as a recreational drug. A characteristic symptom of belladonna poisoning is dilation of the pupils leading to its use as a cosmetic: drops prepared from the plant were used to dilate women’s pupils, making them seem… well … a bella donna.


We were sad not to be able to find the plant today – maybe it is still there somewhere behind the bramble bank. One hopes it was not uprooted by some over-zealous health and safety enthusiast! Please do get in touch if you come across any Belladonna in Fineshade this autumn.


Thanks very much Lea and Charles for these responses via Facebook.


September 24th.  A curious fungus

Fineshade Wood Shaggy Bracket fungus

This large fungus was found growing on the side of an Ash tree in Far Markham's Wood last week. It seemed to be almost furry on top and underneath there were drips of liquid forming. Was this the previous day's rain seeping through the body of the fungus? On one side, what appeared to be pipes were showing. We wondered if it were edible - it certainly would have provided a substantial breakfast, though it didn't look at all tempting.

Back at home we failed to find the species when skimming through a fungus field guide but the excellent First Nature website was more helpful. It turned out to be Inonotus hispidus, or Shaggy Bracket fungus, so named because of the shaggy growth on top. The drops of liquid are one of the key features of this bracket species, all of which have the pipes running through the body.  The fungus is quite rare and is said to be the most important cause of decay in standing Ash trees.


As we suspected, it is not edible!

Fineshade Wood Shaggy Bracket fungus
Fineshade Wood Shaggy Bracket fungus
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