Thursday, 29 March 2012

Water Shrews are Back

Our hedgerow pond enclosure in "The Hedgerow" has taken on many forms over the last few years, but it was last years Water Shrews which were the biggest hit! Unfortunately they both died of old age, but at the end of last year we sourced 2 more pairs from Derek Gow Consultancy.

With our recent tidying up of the enclosure, today saw us introduce one of the pairs to the display. We will keep the others off-display in potential breeding pens, but with the pair on display also a potential pair we have fingers crossed for possible youngsters later this year.

The Water Shrew is the largest of the British shrews, and very distinctive with its black fur on top and white fur underneath. They often have white tufts of fur around the eyes too.

They are usually found near water, such as along streams and river banks, and have a preference for water cress beds.

Water shrews are insectivores, and will hunt both in the water and on land, freshwater shrimps, caddis fly, small fish, beetles and earthworms all being regularly taken. They have to eat 50% of their body weight every 24 hours just to survive and so their reputation for having a voracious appetite it just.

The water shrew, as many others, has venomous salvia which helps to stun it's prey, and aids digestion when eating. The water shrew is one of our shrews which has red tipped teeth. This is a sign of the extra iron deposits that form in the enamel of the teeth, and help to prevent them wearing down on the hard casing of their invertebrate diet.

Usually a solitary animal, water shrews can live together, and will generally breed over the end of Spring/early Summer. Their life span is short, only 18 months, and often they die after just one breeding season, but they can have up to 3 litters within that time.

To see our water shrews you will have to be lucky, but they are active frequently during the day hunting for food. Spend some time at the enclosure and you may may treated with a rare glimpse of this  fantastic animal.

As well as the water shrews, we have decided to delay putting our sicklebacks back and instead use this larger fish tank for our tadpoles. This will give you a much better glimpse into their transformation from  tadpole to froglet than previously seen in our small tank in reception. Keep an eye on them over the next few weeks to see how they develop.

While patiently waiting to see the water shrews, not only do you have the tadpoles to look at, but also a few stickle backs in the pond and many other little water invertebrates. The ramshorns have even started laying their eggs, so many snailets to be seen very soon.

Don't forget, we are open everyday from this Saturday the 31st of March, for the Easter period.

Tuesday, 27 March 2012

What do you call a deer with one antler?...


It's that time of year again when the red deer start to cast their antlers. Today Eric, our "Master Stag," cast his first one. As you can see, they don't always drop at the same time and it can be a few days between each antler falling.

Red Deer cast their antlers every year before starting to grow a new set. Each year the antlers growth follow a similar pattern to previous years, and usually get a little bigger. The number of tines on the antlers has no correlation to the age of the deer and you can't count them to work out how old a stag is, however it is true that usually the older stags have more tines.

The new antlers will only take around 16 weeks to grow, covered by a "velvet" which helps to carry the nutrients required for growth. The deer will then shed this velvet during mid Summer to expose their new antlers, made of true bone, ready for the rut later in the Autumn.

Back in 2008 I took a series of photos of Eric growing his new antlers, one a week, and it took exactly 16 photos for the full growth. Last year Peter Trimming, a regular visitor, re created the series with a photo a week. You can see these photos on our flickr group.

You can see it was 23 weeks before his new antlers had shed the velvet, but if you look closely enough I think you will agree that they actually stopped growing around the 16/17th week.

The antlers are pretty heavy, and this one cast today weighed just shy of 3kg. Thats 6kg Eric has been carrying around with him for the last 7 months.

We often get asked what we do with all the antlers that are cast. Well, the nicer ones we keep for display purposes, the newly cast ones from our main stag/buck we keep to show to school groups and colleges/universities, and the older and smaller ones we cut up to put in with our smaller rodents as a way to help keep their teeth down and as a source of calcium

... There's always one!

So, What do you call a deer with no eyes?
          No eyed deer

What do you call a deer with no eyes and no legs?
          Still no eyed deer

What do you call a castrated deer with no eyes and no legs?
          Still no..... well, I guess we should leave it there for the jokes.

Come and see Eric next week and give him some sympathy, it's this time of year that the younger stags feel more important while he just looks like a big hind!

Thursday, 22 March 2012

Nocturnal House Opening

Today was our official opening of our new exhibit for 2012, the "Nocturnal House." This new exhibit houses 5 new enclosures to display our most nocturnal of animals by swapping their day and night around with a special lighting system. This computer controlled system imitates the year by having shorter days in the Winter and longer days in the Summer, it also dims the light in the morning and brightens in the evening to mimic the dusk and dawn period.

Chris Packham was here to cut the ribbon, and do all the talking to the press. Chris is a good friend of the Centre, and genuinely seemed excited by our new venture.

The main enclosure is for our bats. Above is a photo of a Noctule bat which was on hand at the opening, but our enclosure will display just 3 species... The common pipistrelle, the serotine bat and the brown long eared bat. It is the first enclosure of this kind to display British bats to the public in this way.

We have established close links with several bat groups to help with the design of the enclosure, and the skills involved with looking after these specialised animals. The Bat Conservation Trust, Surrey Bat Group and in particular the Sussex Bat Group and Amanda Miller.
Amanda has been a huge source of information in all aspects of bat care, and has even donated some of her bats to our care. She will remain a close contact with all bat work we do.

As well as the bats we have a large enclosure for a pair of hedgehogs, 2 smaller enclosures for hazel dormice and a pen for our edible dormice who were the stars of the show today!

You can see sneak peek of the new house above, but do come and have a look for yourselves. It may well take a little while for the animals to settle down to their reversed routine, but once they have I am sure it will be a huge success. 

Saturday, 17 March 2012

Goodbye to "Oscar"

Yesterday saw the sad passing of Oscar the otter. One of the oldest, and longest residents of the BWC having been here since 1997.

Oscar was extremely old for an otter, and showed some slight deterioration over the last couple of years, but he was still full of life, and running around his enclosure up until his last days. Over the last year he lost his eye sight and much of his hearing, but had his enclosure mapped out extremely well and so was left to retire on display.

These last few days saw him slow down considerably, but still venture out each day to say hello and come to feed. Yesterday he passed away quietly in his sleep at the grand old age of 16.

Oscar was a huge star of the BWC, and a favourite of many. During his life here he has appeared in many television programmes and is arguably one of the most photographed otters in the country. Always pleased to see new people, he has helped us with inspiring children and adults of all ages about otters and the conservation work that we do with them. Not often did he miss a keeper talk, and those he did he always came meandering out just as we were finishing to see what all the fuss was about.

It is always a sad day when we lose an animal, no more so when it is an old friend such as Oscar. He will be surely missed by staff, members and visitors alike.

Thursday, 15 March 2012

Ol' Blue 'Ol No More

A quick update on the progress of the water vole island... and something I know you photographers will be excited about. The blue tubing has been replaced!

At long last you say. It was always my intention that the blue tube would only be temporary, but of course as time goes by and new jobs crop up they got forgotten about. Re doing the island these past two weeks has given us the time to replace them properly, and replant up areas of the island.

So, now we have done this for you, I expect to see some cracking vole pics going up on flickr over the coming months.

The island is now ready to go, and we will be placing new water voles out there for this weekend coming. It may take them a while to settle in to their new home, but then there is still one left out there which eluded our catching who has been brilliant at posing while we have been working away.

Monday, 12 March 2012

Water Vole Island

We have spent a bit of time re-vamping our water vole island display recently. After re-doing it 3 years ago, it has stead the test of time but was beginning to look a little tired from were the voles had done all their burrowing.

Water drained out, we have re-built the banks, built up the island with fresh top soil and re done the feeding islands. We have also added a bit of grass to add colour, although the rest will readily grow back its self through the soil in a few weeks time.

All that is left to do is plant a bit of sedge grass around the edge and wait for the Voles to make it their own and look a little more naturalistic.

The voles are loving it already, and don't panic you photographers out there... I know the "Ol' blue 'ol" is still there... I have some nice terracotta pipes being prepped to put in place of the blue tubing for that more realistic look.

Over the past few years our water voles have proved to be a fantastic exhibit, especially over the Summer months with the pair and their youngsters not afraid to be out and about while surrounded by people.

It all offers a great opportunity to see this rarely seen British mammal up close and hopefully lets you see it for all its endearing and characterful charm.

Behind the scenes we breed many water voles every year which end up going into the wild. Over recent years we have introduced most of them down on our nature reserve, and just a month ago heard that they have spread down the stream to neighbouring farms. This is great news of course and shows that the releases have been a success.

Give it a week or so to allow them to settle back into their home, and then come and see the real "Ratty" from The Wind in the Willows.

Thursday, 8 March 2012

British Owls

Owls... A favourite of many, even to some of those that display a slight aversion to our friends of a feathery kind. The fur like feathers, less angled face, upright pose, humanistic look with the round face and forward looking eyes and the general all round "wise" expression that they emit. There is no doubt that the owl is one of our favourite animals, and one steeped in history and myth.

It is therefore unsurprising that they are one of the Centre's most popular animals, to see, watch fly and photograph.

About 18 months ago I trialled a "Bird of Prey and Owl" Photographic day, utilising our nature reserve as a natural backdrop, to allow photographers to take some very nice portrait and in-flight pictures. Over the first year it quickly became apparent that the owls were the stars of the show, and so it has now become the "Owl" photographic day.

These days continue to amaze me as to how quickly they book up. We have already sold out on all listed dates for this year, and even taken bookings on some not yet advertised! These later dates will be advertised soon, and we hope we may be able to squeeze in one or two more others to help meet the demand.

As well as our own dates, where you can come and photograph all 7 species of owl, we have WildArena who use our facilities to offer workshops to the amateur photographers out there and Andy Rouse who runs photographic days with the owls to cater for the more serious photographer who wants expert advice. 

I have been told that we are the only Centre in the UK which displays all seven British owls to the public... Although I don't know of any other Centre off the top of my head (only a few private breeders,) I can't believe we are the only one, so if any one does know somewhere else... please let me know.

So, onto our owls...

The Tawny Owl, the most stereotypical owl. Extremely nocturnal, roosting high in dense wooded areas and calling with the classic "kewick - whooo"

The Barn Owl, for many the most beautiful British owl, and certainly the owl with the widest distribution across the world.

The Little Owl, a non-native species which since being introduced to this country has found it's own little niche. Now a favourite of many a twitcher with it's characterful behaviour.

The Long-Eared Owl, least known, but most striking. A beautiful owl that is perfectly adapted to silent flight. I have been told we are one of few places that both display and fly this owl for the public.

The Short-Eared Owl, to me the most stunning owl in the world. Extremely rare in captivity due to the difficulty in breeding them. We are one of very few which house these owls for display.

The European Eagle Owl, debatable as to whether it is recognised. It certainly is in this country and breeding, but will it be allowed to continue.

And the Snowy Owl. We only just get away with keeping the snowy owl here at the centre. There were some residents on Fetlar in the past, whether they are still there is another thing. They do visit us during the Winter though, but much more at home in the colder temperatures of the Arctic Tundra. Only when you see them in the snow does this owl make sense.

Monday, 5 March 2012

Wildcat Shift Around

The next time you visit the BWC you will notice that we have had a light shift around with our wildcats. Our new enclosure opposite the main wildcat pens is being used as a spare wildcat pen for the Spring. This has allowed us to separate all our cats for the breeding season.

Yes, I know what you are thinking... this means we will not be breeding from our cats this year. We have been thinking about this a lot over the past couple of months, but made the decision a little while ago not to breed any wildcat kittens this year.

The reasoning for this is two fold. Firstly, a lot of the cats we do have here are related in some way, therefore limiting our matching options for this year. Secondly, new research is underway to determine the purity of all captive wildcats in the UK. Hopefully this will be well underway come the Summer, and then we will be able to acquire a new breeding cat at the end of this year to pair up with one of our pure cats for breeding in 2013. The situation at the moment is that many Centres are being asked to keep hold of any kittens they produce, and with limited space the decision was made to forgo the season this year to breed and hold purer cats the following year.

So where are all our cats now? Well, Una above has been moved off display... she is a very elderly cat now, and some of you may have noticed that she had a slow recovering ulcer in her left eye. She is still full of form, but looks a bit ragged. She has a nice large pen off display to retire in .

Dougal, who only ever seems to like pairing up with Una, has been moved off display too. He seemed to sulk a little with her absence and so it made sense.

Fergus has been moved into the first enclosure. He is a lovely looking tom cat, and we are working hard with him to try and establish him as our main educating cat. He is slowly getting more used to us being in with him, and the public viewing him, and I am sure it will not be long until he is as visible as the others.

Iona has been moved from the third pen, and placed into the new enclosure opposite the main ones.

This leave Kendra in the middle pen and Richy Junior in the third pen.

I know the lack of kittens this year will disappoint many, but you have to look at the long term prospect for wildcats in the UK. We are working closely with the breeding co-ordinator at Port-Lympne Zoo and Scottish Wildcat Association to try and help save our last remaining native cat in the UK. By missing out this one season it will mean far less, non-suitable cats, will be in captivity and our success in breeding wildcats can be utilised in the future to breed far purer cats, aiding the bloodlines in captivity and with a strong chance of being involved with the releases back to the wild in the future.

With only 400 left in the wild, the Scottish wildcat, or Highland Tiger as it has become locally known, needs all the help we can give it. It is our duty therefore to do the best we can by working closely with other groups and breeders to ensure this happens.

Take a look at the Scottish Wildcat Associations website to find out more about the work they do, and the Wildcat Haven project that may be the way to save wild wildcats in the UK.

Friday, 2 March 2012

Adders are Out

The beginning of this week, and the warm sunshine, saw the emergence of our adders for the first time this year.

We currently have five adders... 3 males and 2 females. As with every year, the males emerge first with the females first being seen a couple of weeks later. After they have shed their skins they will be ready for mating, and then we can offer them their first meal of the year.

The last three years have seen our adders perform the "Dance of the Adders" and we hope that this year will be no exception. Who knows, with our now mature females we may well even see young adder neonates later this Summer! Yes, I know it is a snake, but you wait to see them... baby adders are very cute.

Adders are our only venomous reptile in Great Britain. They have a miss-understood reputation, and are actually a very shy timid creature which shy away from confrontation. They will only bite as a last means of defense, and their venom is said to be only comparable to two bee stings. Of course, if you do get bitten by an adder you should still seek immediate medical attention.

The females grow to be larger than the males, but still only about 2 feet in length on average, making them one of our smallest snakes. The females tend to be a copper/brown colour with a dull "zig-zag" marking down their back, where as the males are much more of a contrast. They tend to be a silver grey colour with vivid black markings.

Either way, to me they are a sensational snake, a remarkable reptile and just simply an amazing animal!

One of my favourites to photograph to so watch out for many adder pics over the end of Spring, early Summer.