Wednesday, 28 November 2012

European Polecat; Conservation

The polecat is one of our most popular animals with the visitors we have, I think this is due to their very playful nature, curiosity and perhaps familiarity too as they do very closely resemble the domestic ferret. But it hasn't always been perceived in this way in the wild.

They once had a very bad reputation for being blood thirsty animals and were considered vermin, with the term "foulmart" often used as a derogatory name for someone. Because of this gamekeepers would intentionally trap and/or kill them, and along with other reasons such as road deaths, interbreeding with domestic ferrets and habitat loss, this led to the polecat becoming extinct in England with only a few individuals remaining in Wales.

During the late 20th Century the polecat started to increase again in number and distribution. They are now partially protected under the Wildlife and Countryside Act, an increase in rabbits after the initial myxomatosis outbreak has helped with prey source and deliberate re-introductions have really boosted their wild numbers.

The BWC is part of an independent studbook and breeding program for the polecat, along with many other centres, and have successfully bred them here for many years now with many of the kits being introduced to the wild.

Once again this year, Storm and Velvet produced a lovely litter of 7 kits... all of which were females! A couple of these have been held back for future breeding pairs and gone of to new homes at other centres, but the remaining ones are being collected later this week to begin their acclimatization for a release later down the line.

To find out more about polecats, be sure to visit us over the Christmas opening period where you can see a daily keeper talk on the polecat at 1:00pm

Monday, 26 November 2012

European Polecat; Species Profile

No, today's post isn't about the pine marten... the photo above is of one of our female polecats, Velvet.

Polecats are one of seven members of the Mustelid family that can be found living in the wild of Great Britain. The others being the weasel, stoat, American mink, pine marten, otter and rather surprisingly the badger. As with much of our wildlife, the polecat came close to the brink of extinction with only a small number surviving in the wild in Wales. But with recent habitat conservation work, natural progression and in some cases the re-introduction of some of these animals back in to the wild, they are beginning to spread back across the country.

Here are some great facts about Britain's smelliest mammal:-

 - An old English name for the Polecat is "foulmart", due to it's very powerful and pungent smell that it can release from scent glands

 - This is why the term "American Polecat" is often used to describe a skunk

 - Their actual name, polecat, most likely comes from the French "poule chat" meaning "chicken cat", due to the their diet

 - Another old name for the polecat is "fitch" due to the fur they were once hunted for

 - A male polecat is called a "Hob", and female a "Jill" and the youngsters are called "kits"

 - A group of polecats is known as a "chine"

 - Polecats can "lock" their jaw shut when they bite, making it very difficult for prey to escape once caught

 - Although not a large part of their diet, polecats have been known to catch and eat snakes, including adders... it is believed that the polecat may even be immune to the adders venom!

Next post will be about the conservation work we are doing with the European polecat. To find out more about the life and biology of these animals, come and see us over the Christmas period opening when we will be doing a daily keeper talk on the polecat.

And don't forget, this is the last week that you can enter our BWC photo competition...

Friday, 23 November 2012

Water Vole; Conservation

The water vole was once a familiar sight in the countryside, but has been the subject of the fastest rate of decline of any British mammal. Studies in the 90's showed that water voles are now absent in up to 94% of sites previously found in.

So what is responsible for their rapid decline? As with many species, it is a combination of threats... pollution of the waterways in the past have not helped, fragmentation or even complete loss of vital waterside habitats has been a bigger problem but perhaps the biggest threat of all has been the introduction of the American mink. This predator is efficient in preying on mink both underwater and on land, and where as a water vole can escape from many predators by taking to their under ground den system... a mink can often easily squeeze into these tunnels and snatch the voles from their safe haven.

Conservation of this charismatic mammal is undertaken with careful habitat management, controlling of potential predators and even direct re-introductions of the voles themselves into suitable locations. There are a few organisations out there that do great work with water vole conservation, such as Derek Gow Consultancy, but we are focusing our attentions more locally for now.

Great news on our water vole project. Earlier this year we released some new voles out on to our nature reserve, and shortly afterwards we spotted many signs to show that they were still there and present... although didn't see a vole itself.

Well, only a month a go a member to the Centre excitedly told me they had spotted a water vole down on the reserve. Going down to have a look, and not only did we see an adult vole, but also a youngster. This just shows that not only are they surviving down there, but that they are also breeding. Therefore they must be quite happy in their new "wild" home.

At the end of the summer, we also set up our breeding voles ready for next year. I wasn't expecting any youngster to be bred by them before the year was out, but to our surprise we have had a few litters from these voles too. Therefore, at the weekend, we put a further 25 water voles out into the soft release pens around the reserve to acquaint themselves to their new surrounding before we let them go in the new year.

The nature reserve is a tributary of the Eden Brook River, so as time progresses it may be a possibility, with co-operation from neighboring land owners and Natural England, that we could progress this project further to allow the voles to spread upstream and possibly even back on to this Kent river. If this was to happen, we believe it may be the first time water voles were re-introduced on to the Eden Brook.

With the initial releases on to our reserve, the main "potential" problem we can foresee is from that of predators in both the mink and herons.
We have a large colony of herons that live on the reserve, and in other areas they have been known to prey on water voles. I think we have to expect to lose one or two voles to this threat, but we hope to reduce the impact by managing the habitat to give the voles dense cover in key areas of the wetland area and by supplementing the herons diet by putting out any of the waste fish our otters do not eat.
In terms of the American mink, we are working closely we Surrey Wildlife Trust (SWT) and have put out three mink rafts by their design in the immediate area. So far there have been no signs, but if a mink were to be spotted, then it would be controlled for the benefit of the water vole and wading bird population on the reserve.

The SWT are to help with the monitoring of the water vole population on our nature reserve so that we can hopefully show that what we are doing is a success, and resulting in a new population of voles. I will keep you informed through the new year as this surveying is underway.

Wednesday, 21 November 2012

Water Vole; Species Profile

The Water Vole is one of Britain's most endearing small mammals. It is Britain's largest vole and probably most famous for being Kenneth Grahame's "Ratty" in The Wind in the Willows.

Still often confused with a rat, the water vole is a similar size but has a blunter, rounder muzzle, a shorter tail, softer shaggier fur and a straighter back.

The water vole is mainly found in areas where water is present all year round, densely vegetated banks with slow flowing rivers or lakes are ideal. Their diet consists mainly of these different grasses and other vegetation found along the river banks although occasionally they will also eat berries and invertebrates too. During a day they would have to eat 80% of their body weight in food.

They den in burrows along the waters edge, consisting of many different tunnels with not only entrances above the waters surface but also below allowing them to swim into their homes. The tunnels can stretch a fair distance, and often you will find straighter tunnels in some areas to help reduce the risk of flooding.

They tend to breed over the Summer months in the wild, and can have up to 5 litters a year producing up to 9 pups in a litter. These will disperse soon after reaching maturity, with only the last litter sometimes staying behind over winter with the parents. Bickering tends to be displayed with chattering teeth and even rearing up on their hind legs and boxing with their forefeet.

Check out these water vole facts...

 - On mainland Europe, water voles are often found living more inland and are considered a pest by many people

 - In this country they are normally found within 20 metres of a water source, and are extremely popular

 - They build food stores within there dens for the colder winter months

 - They mark there territory by rubbing their hind feet along glands on their flanks, before stamping their feet in to the ground. During the breeding season females do this on top of their droppings leaving flattened dropping as a good sign of females present

 - The water vole is a strong swimmer, and can easily swim up to 500 metres along the surface

 - They can happily dive to over 15 metres in depth

 - If pursued by a predator, they will kick up the mud to create a mud cloud to confuse and disorientate the hunter... just like a smokescreen. How cool is that!

Monday, 19 November 2012


A lot of people have asked me about hibernation recently, following on from our recent posts on Britain's only hibernating mammals (bats, dormice and hedgehogs.) So I thought I would post a brief description of this evolutionary process as a winter survival strategy.

The first important thing to remember is that hibernation is not just "falling asleep" for a long time. I would suggest the best way to describe hibernation is as an "energy conservation strategy". OK, I know, and I don't want to scare any off you off, but bare with me and I will explain...

Hibernation is a way of overcoming the possible lack off food during the winter months. If it is going to take more energy in finding food than you would get from eating it, then of course this is no good. So why not skip this period of the year completely?

To do this, animals that hibernate will eat and store as much food as fat as they can during the autumn. The plan is to then survive off of the fat reserves while at rest during the winter. To do this these few animals can do something quite remarkable and completely lower their metabolism allowing their bodies to run in "shut-down" mode, using far less energy and running on the basic requirements, and therefore be able to survive the long cold months.

Digestion and breathing will come to an almost standstill. The animals heartbeat will drop to a fraction of its normal rate, for example a hedgehogs heart beat will drop from a usual 190 beats per minute to only 20bpm. But perhaps most amazing is their ability to lower their body temperature to match their surroundings. Again, using hedgehogs as an example, they will lower their body temperature from 35 degrees Celsius to less than 10 degrees, often less than 5 degrees! Yet, to avoid completely freezing... if their surroundings reach zero, then they will increase their metabolism just enough to survive!

Another misconception is that the animals will sleep all the way through the winter, but in reality they may stir a few times, sometimes even once or twice a week especially later into that period, and sometimes even to come out to eat and drink before going back to their nest to enter hibernation again. Often hedgehogs swap hibernation nests halfway through the winter.

If stirred, it will take them a while to increase their temperatures before being fully active enough to move on. It can often take dormice a good 20 mintues before they are "awake", and hedeghogs up to 4 hours! This of course uses valuable energy resources which could be used to survive hibernating that little bit longer, and so it is important not to disturb a hibernating animal in the wild.

Unfortunately our bats, hedgehogs and dormice are well into their period of hibernating here at the centre. But they are the only British mammals that do hibernate. Surprisingly to many, other animals such as our squirrels and badgers do not hibernate! It is true that they cut down their activity during the winter, and would be seen out and about in the wild less often, but they do not hibernate.

Friday, 16 November 2012

The Edible Dormouse

So, with all this talk about the common dormouse, what about it's cousin... the "Edible Dormouse"

The edible dormouse, often referred to as the "Glis" after its latin name, Glis glis. Is an introduced species to Great Britain. It was first introduced to this country in 1902 by a Lord Walter Rothschild, to Tring Park in Hertfordshire. From there they have spread and increased in number...

By the 1920's it was known that they were damaging local crops and coppice land, but despite attempts to control them they continued to spread.

By the mid 1930's they were beginning to become a domestic problem, moving in to peoples loft spaces and gnawing through roof beams and electrical wires.

Today they are still generally confined to the Chilterns region, and populations estimates at best, show there are quite possibly more than 10,000 of them in the area.

The edible dormouse gets its name from them being an old, popular dish on menus throughout Southern Europe. It is certainly true that the Romans used to rear them for the sole purpose of eating, although this was very unlikely to have happened in this country.

The Romans used to keep many of them at a time in large earthenware pots called "dolia" where they would feed them up. Once fattened, they would pour cold water over the dolia to cool them and place the dormice inside into their hibernating state. This way they could keep their food supply fresh, without having to feed them any more, and so simply pick one out whenever they fancied one.

Edible dormice are very different to common dormice in both looks and behaviour. Looks wise, they are a large dormouse, grey in colour as opposed to the smaller golden colour of the common dormouse.

Behaviour wise, unlike the calm natured common dormouse that very rarely bites. The edible dormouse can be a very scatty, vocal and aggressive animal.

The status of Edible dormice in Britain is a strange one. All dormice are protected in Europe, and so their trapping and removal is only allowed under licence from Natural England. They are an alien species that are only in this country due to mans interference, and so therefore it is illegal to re-introduce them back in to the wild. So, once they have been trapped what happens to them?.. I think you can probably guess, but it seems strange that this can happen to a fully protected European species.

Wednesday, 14 November 2012

Common Dormouse; Conservation

It is very difficult to study and monitor our native dormouse due to it's nocturnal nature, arboreal behaviour and the fact that it lies dormant for over half of the year. What we do know is that over the past 100 years dormice have become extinct in over half of their natural range. But why are we losing our little "Sleepers" in the wild?

Well, as is nearly always the answer, habit loss is the biggest problem. The loss of ancient woodland and the fragmentation of key habitats into locally smaller ones have not helped. Dormice are highly arboreal, and do not like to cross open areas, and so when confined to these smaller areas of woodland they struggle to find food types they need.

Dormice are specialist feeders, and require not only good quality but also a diversity of food types through the course of the year. They are very sensitive animals, and therefore very sensitive to the slight changes in their environment due to both habitat and climate. But because of this they are also a good indicator species. If dormice are present in an area and thriving, then we know the habitat must be good.

So what are we doing to help?

The British Wildlife Centre is part of the "Common Dormoue Captive Breeders Group" run by Paignton Zoo, and studbook managed at Wildwood. As part of this group we hold pairs of potential breeding dormice (in our pens opposite our snakes.) The aim is to breed these animals in captivity, to then be able to return them back in to the wild at carefully selected and monitored sites by PTES.

The group holds a licence to allow us to have in captivity a number of wild dormice every year, usually ones that have come in prior to winter for being too low in weight to survive. These individuals can then be added to the breeding program to allow new genes to enter the program, and increase genetic diversity before releases occur. The idea is that the parents and youngsters will then be release the following year, with new pairs being created for future breeding. Earlier this year we sent off 9 healthy dormice to be released as part of the project.

As well as our "breeders" we also have some "educational" dormice which live in our nocturnal house. These are individuals that have either been in captivity too long to be introduced to the wild, or are not healthy enough to do so. They can still play a vital role in the conservation for their species though by being ambassadors and providing, often, that first exciting glimpse of a live dormouse.

As an aside. We have also been working this previous year with the Surrey Dormouse Group, to use tiny infra red cameras to record the nocturnal habits of dormice actually in their nest box! The aim was to get on camera, for the first time ever, a dormouse building a nest... did we succeed! Well yes, we did. And we managed to get some good stuff on camera, which hopefully will be shared later next year. In the meantime, we are giving the project a break over the Winter, when next year we will start up again to try and improve on the footage we already have... and perhaps more excitingly, try and get dormice babies on camera coming out of their nest for the first time.

For more information on the filming techniques and the work of the Surrey Dormouse Group, check out the link below.

Sunday, 11 November 2012

Common Dormouse; Species Profile

The Common Dormouse, perhaps more commonly known as the "Hazel" Dormouse, is Britain's only native dormouse, but it is very poorly named...

The common dormouse is not a type of mouse. It is a rodent, but often more closely resembles a squirrel. However it is not a squirrel either, and belongs in a family group all of it's own along with around 20 other species. This family group is called the "Gliridae", or in other words the dormice.

The common dormouse is not as common as it once was anymore. Habitat loss and fragmentation has led to a reduction in the numbers we have in the wild. I will explain more in our conservation post in a few days.

The common dormouse is not a "door". Obviously!... OK, sorry about that one.

But the common dormouse IS one of our most engaging and beautiful small mammals. They seem to prefer hazel coppice woodland, but will be found in other areas too such as deciduous woodland and overgrown hedgerows. It seems one of the most important factors is a variety of diet throughout the year.

Their diet consists of flowers, pollen, berries, fruits and nuts such as hazelnuts, beechmast and chestnuts. They will take small insects too, and perhaps the most important food source being brambles, honeysuckle, oak and hazel.

Dormice will usually just have the one litter a year of 3-7 young in the Summer. Sometimes a second, later litter may occur, but often these won't survive their first hibernation.

They have predators such as owls and weasels, but their biggest threat is starvation through the cold Winter months.

 Here are some amazing facts on our native dormouse:

 - The word "dormouse" possibly comes from the French verb "dormir", meaning "to sleep"

 - Well known for its appearance in the Alice in Wonderland books, often falling asleep at the Mad Hatter's tea party

 - A very nocturnal mammal, they have large eyes for their body size and incredibly adapted whiskers which they can use to feel their surroundings in pitch dark

 - They are very arboreal, and similar to squirrels, can rotate their hind feet 180 degrees to help hand from twigs

 - Even cooler than that, their feet are covered in small gripping pads to help stay attached to the trees. This makes their feet feel sticky when handled

 - Needle sharp claws help with climbing on even the smoothest of surfaces

 - Dormice don't have a "caecum" - the area of the digestive system that is used to digest leaves etc. Therefore they are specialist feeders, one of the contributing factors to their decline

 - Most small rodents have only 3 molars with rough lumps to help chew their food. Dormice have 4! with traverse ridges instead, allowing a smoother gnaw

 - Known for their "sleepy" nature, they are our longest hibernators often hibernating for up to 7 months of the year

 - During the summer they can often enter a state of "torpor", a kind of semi-hibernation, often up to 10 hours a day... of course they still get their usually 8 hours of sleep during the day on top off this too!

 - Therefore it is no surprise that the old English name for the dormouse was "The Sleeper"

To hear about our conservation efforts with common dormice, check back in a few days. To hear more about these fascinating little rodents and see one in person, then do come to the wildlife centre later next Spring, when they are beginning to come out of hibernation. You will then get to see them in our "Nocturnal House" during the day as they go about their foraging.

Thursday, 8 November 2012


Our new venture for this year was our Nocturnal House. It has proved to be  a huge success, with three species of bat, hedgehogs and both edible and common dormice being on display to the public in what we believe to be the first exhibit of this kind in the country.

By reversing the lighting in there so that our day is their night, these animals have been happy to be out for you to see during the day in their dimly lit enclosures. However, now is that time of year when they start to think about hibernating.

So... with a post last week on Hedgehogs, and a doozy set of posts coming up next week on dormice, it seems only right that we fill the gap between with a post on the only other British mammal which hibernates... our bats.

- Bats are the only mammals in the world that can truly fly

- There are currently 18 recognised bat species living in Great Britain, 17 of which are known to be breeding

- Bats are not blind, but use echolocation to find their way around

- Bats can live up to 30 years

- Even the smallest bat, the pipistrelle, can eat up to 3,000 insects in a night

- Bats are more closely related to humans than they are to rodents

Tuesday, 6 November 2012

BWC Photo Competition 2012

The Summer season is now over, and we are no longer open to the general public at the weekends. Of course we are still busy with school  bookings and photography groups until we open for the week after Boxing Day, and for those of you that have a major withdrawal of seeing our animals we have the Members Lunch Club running every week from next week.

But in the short term, why not have a look back through all your photos you have taken over the past year and enter a few into our photographic competition!

Due to a slight delay in our Winter Newsletter going out this year, it was decided to push the closing date for entries back by two weeks to Friday the 30th of November to allow readers of this a week to enter. This now gives you plenty of time to sort and enter you favourite images of the year to try and win an exclusive day here at the Centre, and gain some photographic opportunities not available on our normal days when we have a group in.

For more details have a look at the tab above to rind out about the categories etc, but for now all you need to remember is you now have until Friday the 30th of November to submit your best pictures.

Good Luck!

Thursday, 1 November 2012

Hedgehog; Profile and Conservation

The clocks have turned back, the temperature is dropping, Autumn is here and so another bonfire night is dawning. But please do spare a thought for our hedgehogs at this time of year. They are beginning to think about hibernation, and where better than a nice large pile of brush wood or a bonfire pile. If you are thinking of creating a bonfire on Monday the 5th, or anytime of year for that matter, it is always best just to check it before hand to make sure no hedgehogs have moved in before setting it alight!

Hedgehogs are our only "spiky" animal, and one of only three types of British mammal that truly hibernate, the other two being the dormice and bats. But what else makes the hedgehog so amazing, and one of Britain's most charismatic creatures...

 - The hedgehog species is believed to have been around for over 10 million years

 - The name is thought to have come from it's late night habits of foraging through hedges whilst emitting a pig-like grunt

 - The males are called boars, females sows and babies hoglets

 - They have around 5,000 hollow spines or "quills", each lasting about a year before dropping out and being replaced by a new one

 - When first born they have only a few spines, which are soft and reside just under the skin 

 - Often called the "gardeners friend", as there diet consists largely of common garden pests

 - Hedgehogs are mildly intolerant to lactose, so please do not feed them bread and milk!

 - Hedgehogs are known for being flea-ridden, often carrying up to 500 fleas, of course the ones at the BWC are treated and so are flea free

 - When stimulated by a strong smell they often self-anoint, tasting the new smell and then licking their spines with a foamy saliva... no one is sure the reason behind why they do this?

 - During hibernation a hedgehogs heartbeat will drop from 190 beats per minute to around only 20bpm!

 - Surprisingly hedgehogs can swim, climb walls and...

 - They can run up to 4.5mph! Not bad for a little ball of spikes

The hedgehog is one of our most loved wild animals, perhaps most famously seen as "Mrs Tiggy-Winkle" ironing her shirts in one of Beatrix Potters stories, but unfortunately they are not doing so well at the moment.

Recent surveys in Britain has confirmed what many naturalists have thought... hedgehogs are declining in number. In fact it is believed that we have lost over a quarter of the population in just the last ten years, possibly nearer to a half of the population in some areas. Why is this?.. Well, no-one seems to be able to put a definitive answer on it, but it is likely to a combination of little things along with a general change in garden/habitat issues.

Slug pellets still seem to be a problem, with many gardeners still using these to control their slugs, and then hedgehogs in turn eating the slugs and becoming poisoned themselves. More road users means more road deaths. An increase in badger numbers could possibly lead to more hedgehogs being eaten. But perhaps the biggest change is that in Britain's gardens.

These days it seems many people are keeping their gardens very neat and tidy, and not leaving any areas overgrown... which is what the hedgehog likes. Some even go as far as to change from a "natural" garden to one with decking and paving. More secure fencing around a garden leads to it being harder for a hedgehog to traverse between different areas while foraging for food, and this general habitat loss is making it hard for hedgehogs in the wild.

So what do we do here? Well, all we really can do is keep educating the public and schools about our hedgehogs and what they can do to help in their own back gardens. We don't breed our hedgehogs for release, but we do get many brought in every year as rescues. We pass these on to dedicated rescue centres such as "Wildlife A&E" who are far better suited than us to offer these animals the care they need. They can then look at the best options for the hedgehogs for their future, be that a permanent home or a release back in to the wild.

We also work closely with the wildlife trusts, and the People's Trust for Endangered Species (PTES). We often loan them a hedgehog for their educational days so that their visitors can actually see the animal they are trying to work towards conserving. They have recently set up the "Hedgehog Street" website, sharing information about hedgehog friendly gardening and trying to gather a following of "Hedgehog Champions" to help with the efforts to save our hedgehogs, and continue to work to promote the conservation of our spiny little friends.

To find our more about the hedgehog itself, why not come along while we are still open till this Sunday the 4th of November. Here you will be able to see our hedgehogs in our new "Nocturnal House" before they fully settle in to hibernation, and learn all about the animals themselves during out "Keeper Talk" at 1.00pm.

To find out more about the work the PTES are doing, then either look at their main site or check out their hedgehog street site linked below: