The Mammals of Linford Lakes Nature Reserve (HESC)
by Janice Robertson
I had a brief glimpse of a weasel running across the entrance to the car park last week. It looked like a flying sausage!
That started me wondering how many other mammals have been seen on the reserve. The Flickr site seemed a good point to start. I tried the Search option but hardly any came up because not many people remember to put a proper title or tag identifying their photo. Of course the site hasn’t been in operation for very long, having been set up in September 2013. And the FoHESC blog also only started in March 2012. But I trawled through and found a few more. These are notes on what I have found about mammals in the Linford Lakes reserve, in approximate order of size. Perhaps other members would be able to add to these sightings.
Tony Bedford and I saw a Water Shrew from the Woodland Hide on 28 February 2013. We could just see the dark grey body moving about at the bottom of the reeds. It would be looking for invertebrates such as dragonfly larvae but as they are semi-aquatic they also eat beetles and worms along the banks.
Small mammals such as mice and voles are much commoner than we realise because they tend to hide away in their burrows or only venture out in the dark. That’s the problem with being so tasty. They are first choice for barn owls, foxes and kestrels, which only resort to worms and frogs if the rodents are too nippy to be caught. Badgers will also take them if they find a nest. Mice are slightly larger than voles, with longer tails, bigger eyes and sticking-up ears.
Many visitors will have seen Bank Voles darting in and out of the wood pile in front of the Woodland Hide. They love nuts and seeds and don’t wait for nightfall before nipping out for a scattered peanut. They were photographed by Neil Schofield in February 2012 and Tony Bedford (whose moniker on Flickr is bankvole5) in early 2014. Then the wood pile was taken over by brown rats and the voles disappeared (hopefully not down a rat’s throat). But just recently Peter Connor photographed one there in February. So, have the rats gone? Another species is a Short-tailed Field Vole which is as common but rarely seen in daylight. Perhaps we should dissect some barn owl pellets to find out if they are on the reserve.
In the Blog of October 2014 Tony Bedford has an amusing account of offering to help eradicate rodents from the Hanson Centre offices. He caught seven Wood Mice (also known as Long-tailed Field Mouse) in live traps baited with seed and apple and released them elsewhere in the reserve where their prolific bodily evacuations won’t matter.
We know there are Moles because we see the mounds of earth they kick out while digging their tunnel systems underground. They eat worms and insects and whatever they can find while occasionally emerging above ground, usually young ones dispersing to other territories. They are regarded as a pest in agricultural areas, but they reduce harmful larvae, and their tunnels help to drain soils.
Some of us took advantage of Gordon Redford’s moth and bat evening last year. We didn’t see a lot in the dusk but it was obvious from the beeping of our hand-held gadgets that bats were communicating. We could just see outlines of the smallest and the largest British bats, Pipistrelles and Noctules, as they fluttered overhead.
The log pile in front of the Woodland Hide was home to bank voles until the Brown Rats moved in and evicted them in the late autumn of 2014. Three or more were seen at any one time, and they became brave and agile enough to climb the bird tables to feast on the seed. I even photographed rats feeding communally with squirrels, great tits and a marsh tit. Some people like them but they might carry diseases to birds and other mammals.
Apart from rats, are Grey Squirrels the most controversial animal on the reserve? Comments heard in the Woodland Hide vary from “They are so cute” to “They’re eating all the peanuts so the birds don’t get a look in”. I think the most I’ve counted was six at once, swinging in from all directions as soon as new seed is put out. They were introduced to this country in the 1850s, and are blamed for damage to trees by bark stripping and for outcompeting or spreading a pox virus to red squirrels. They also are fond of eggs and young birds from nests that they can easily reach. The Government announced plans to extend culling by giving grants to landowners who had identified the animals as an issue and who wanted to receive funding for woodland and other related projects. Perhaps their days are numbered, but I would be sorry to see them all disappear.
Rabbits are rarely seen, although Peter Garner photographed one in June 2014. I often see them grazing in farmland during the day but usually they prefer dusk and dawn, when I don’t tend to visit the reserve. Probably only the rough fields and woodland edges of the reserve are suitable. They would be prey for foxes, stoats, tawny owls, and buzzards, and survive by having acute hearing and eyesight and bolting down their burrows at the first hint of danger.
Weasels and Stoats have been recorded on the reserve (see Tony Bedford’s photos of December 2012 and July 2014 and Neil Schofield’s of September 2014). But how to tell them apart? There is a size difference (stoats are bigger) and weasels have short tails without a dark tip. They are both fearless and will tackle prey larger than themselves, such as rabbits and rats, as well as mice and voles, and if they get a chance, birds and eggs.
In April 2014 Jenny Brown photographed an American Mink peeking out of a drainage pipe. It looked cute, a bit like a small otter, but as semi-aquatic animals they are opportunistic killers of fish, ducklings, small mammals and ground-nesting birds, and are small enough to predate hole dwellers such as water voles and kingfishers. They tend to kill more than they need to eat. They were brought into the country for fur farms, from where they escaped in the late 1950s. They have no natural predators in the UK, although it is thought that the presence of otters reduces their numbers for some reason, perhaps competition for nesting sites. The local Wildlife Trusts try to control them where water voles are threatened by improving habitat and trapping them.
Otters were first sighted in the River Ouzel in 2007 and at Willen Lake in March 2013. On a dull rainy day in February 2014 I was fortunate to video three otters swimming across the main lake towards the bank behind the Centre offices. Then early this year Neil Schofield was lucky enough to photograph four swimming and Tony Bedford amazingly came across one walking along a footpath and had the presence of mind to grab a wonderful photo. Anglers are not keen on them (and the reserve is next to several fishing lakes). Otters will often take a bite out of a large fish and leave the rest. Neil spotted the otters because they were being followed by crows and gulls, probably hoping for some easy pickings. They are a sign of clear waters and abundant fish stocks. The local Wildlife Trusts try to encourage them by improving habitats and sites for holts.
As nocturnal animals, Badgers are rarely seen. But their footprints are visible in the wet mud and their tidy latrine holes can sometimes be spotted. A sett near a path seems to be in current use. There must be plenty of earthworms around the wet areas. They would also find berries and beetles and wasps’ nests in the ground, and even peanuts if the birds and squirrels leave them around. Unfortunately they often fall prey themselves, to cars on the roads. One was dead on the main road outside the reserve entrance only last month. If they are breeding, young cubs may be above ground by about April.
Many of us regularly see Red Foxes on the reserve, trotting along well-worn paths, or at least smell the pungent aroma they leave behind. I videoed one almost bumping into a muntjac before it was threatened and had to move away. Apparently their eyesight is not as good as their sense of smell or hearing, but they are better at seeing at night-time when they find most of their prey. Neil Schofield has photos of one impudently crossing the bund, where they could do a lot of damage to ground-nesting birds and their eggs. They will eat anything: fruit, grasses, beetles, small mammals, squirrels, fish, frogs.
Many of us have seen one or a pair of Muntjacs, calmly grazing among the trees, until they spot us, at which point they head off out of sight among the bushes with their tails sticking up. Or you might hear one barking like an alarmed dog. They escaped from Woburn Abbey’s parkland in the early 1900s and are now sometimes regarded as a pest, although not as damaging to woodlands as larger deer. They love juicy woodland plants and tree saplings, and any vegetable matter. But it is unlikely that they will inhabit the reserve in such numbers as to do real damage.
It would be interesting to hear of other sightings on the reserve. Has anyone seen hedgehogs, or water voles? One day we may even find evidence of polecats, which have recently bred at College Lake near Tring, and may be expanding their range.
All photographs taken by and copyright Tony Bedford
All photographs taken by and copyright Tony Bedford