Wild Ways.

Walk with me on the wild side as I talk about wildlife featuring the species of flora and fauna that I either encounter or feel should be included within my site.  The rivers habitat is huge so within it there are far more species of flora and fauna than I could ever hope to list here.  In any case, this section is aimed at shinning a light on certain species which the river angler is likely to encounter whilst being out along the river fishing.  Some species will be known to many and some not so well known.   This wild ways section will be ongoing and serve as my record of what I see whilst I am out and about either along the rivers edge or in the surrounding countryside.  There will also be stories told about the fish, birds and animals that live out their lives in wild and not so wild places.

 

Few fish can unlock the primeval urge in the angler to go hunting like the pike can.  With its reputation for evil malevolence, rows of razor sharp fangs and cold eyes which display it’s no mercy qualifications the tigress of the river and lake remains at the pinnacle of predator evolution personified.   Since prehistoric times the pike has waited in the shadows to strike and has hardly changed its deathly lethal technique since then.

 

The Gates of Doom.   Chapter 1

A musty smell of fungus filled the damp foggy air.   Autumn had arrived and all along the big river trees were shedding their leaves in a show of cascading golden colour as they fluttered down to carpet the ground.  Leaves that fell onto the river danced around in circles as the current carried them off going past coots and moorhens that occasionally paddled out to inspect their passage.  The overhanging boughs and branches were heavily laden with foggy dew that dripped down onto the calm rivers surface sending ripples spreading out in ever increasing circles.  Two adult swans, seemingly oblivious to the change in seasons, drifted past the thick beds of reed mace stopping further down to both upend with their tails aloft as their long necks and heads grazed on the weedy river bed.   High in the sky migrating skeins of geese are flying in to over winter here having come thousands of miles from their summer breeding grounds.   All along the river and in the surrounding countryside life was starting to adjust to the changing of the seasons as another long hot summer passes into memory.  The erratic hovering dragonfly has already been replaced with the “clattering” of jackdaws whilst flocks of gulls follow the plough as it churns over the land in readiness for the long winter ahead.

A narrow boat emerges from the fog and draws alongside the mooring at the head of the large locks at Stoke.  Its owner, a rather portly red faced chap had radioed ahead to announce his arrival to the lockkeeper so he could have the lock ready.  The huge oak lock gates swung open and the seventy foot narrow boat slowly entered the lock taking with it in its wake a large shoal of mature bream that had also been gathering around the gates.  Once the oak gates closed behind the boat and fish the lower gates opened their sluices and the huge boat began the decent within the emptying lock to the rivers lower level.  Beyond the lower gates the river formed a deep pool and in that deep pool the rotten hulk of an old wooden coal barge lay on the river bed.  Like the remains of a dinosaur, the ribs and remaining planking were just visible above a bank of silt where it had lain for ninety years since it sank after having a fire on board.  The barges owner and operator at the time, a known drunk, had knocked over an oil lamp late one evening and all attempts to save the boat had failed.

Down on the river bed reflections of the river surface ripples light up the gravel and sand floor as the large oak lock gates begin to swing open.  The dull thudding sound and vibration of oak on oak is heard as the lock gates operate which serves as a signal to travelling fish assembled for passage up or down river.  With the gates fully open the narrow boat moves out into the lower level pool accompanied by the large shoal of bream and other fish swimming in the opposite direction towards the open lock for the return journey upstream.  Large perch that have been lying amongst the weed and debris near the foot of the gates dash out to attack the roach shoals passing by which forces a mass panic display of silver flashes as the roach shoals explode causing confusion within the ranks of the perch wolf pack shoal.  The large bream, many over ten pounds, swim slowly out into the deep pool unaffected and unworried by the hooligan perch.  But as the stern of the narrow boat is moving out of the deep pool heading off down river to disappear in a bank of thick fog, something is watching from within the hulk of the old barge with eyes firmly fixed on the large bream shoal that is swimming around.

Within the carcass of the rotten barge, a small cloud of silt wafts up as the huge fishes belly lifts off the silt bed where she has been lying.  The tigress uses her red fins to move very slowly towards the opening of her lair.  Light streams in through the rotten boards and ribs above to illuminate her olive green flanks and bright yellow mottled markings.  Her bright orange tiger eyes stare out with uncompromising determination and merciless menace because she is hungry and her hunger must be satisfied.  The bream are unaware they have wandered into the monsters territory and equally unaware they are in grave danger as the huge pike slipped out of her lair to lie at the side of sunken branches closer to the fish.  Normally pike are opportunists in waiting, happy and content to let their prey come to them when they dash out in a furry to seize their prey.  Not so with this pike.  She likes to stalk her prey and due to her immense size weighing in at over fifty pounds she requires big meals to satisfy her insatiable appetite.

The pike knows it has to get closer.  Not that she can’t outrun the bream because she can but once the fish start to split up she will be no match for their turning abilities.  She has to get closer so hugging the bottom she moves into the areas of light where her camouflage markings match those reflected down upon the river bed.  She watches the fish from below and edges her way towards the centre of the deep pool in an area bathed in light and reflection because so long as the sun is bright she will remain hidden.  Now she waits.   The bream shoal swim around the pool above the pike illuminated as dark shadows easily seen with her sharp eyes set in the top of her bony head.  Three fish break from the shoal and move towards the area where she is laying, this is her chance so with pensive anticipation her powerful tail quivers in readiness for attack.  She waits until the fish are almost over her head then fires herself towards them in an almighty explosive sprint.  Amongst a myriad of bubbles with her powerful jaws and five hundred plus razor sharp teeth locked tightly around the breams body it’s all over.  With the rest of the bream shoal scattered fleeing into the main river she waits for the anti-coagulant on her teeth to work before turning the large bream to swallow it down whole.

The drone of a diesel engine sounds as another narrow boat passes by overhead followed by the dull thudding sound of oak on oak as the lock gates close.  Down below in the deep pool a huge dark shape disappears inside the rotten hulk of the sunken coal barge.  Sinking down on a bed of silt the great pike will rest and digest her large meal but it won’t be long before she will need to hunt again.  All around her shoals of dace and roach swim in and out of the sunken barge in between the ribs and openings where the boards have rotted away.  Fish do not fear her now but come instead to gaze upon the monster whilst she rests.

With most of the leaves fallen from the trees autumn comes to an end. Once the North wind begins to blow it will bring with it the first chill of winter, stark grey branches replace lush green boughs and the fields become coated with the first frosts of the season.  These first frosts are not severe but their arrival reminds us all that it won’t be long before we will find ourselves in the grip of winter.  Clothing that was put away once spring had arrived is out hanging on the coat hooks once again with the families winter footwear lined up below on the floor.  Long days are replaced by long nights when many of us leave for work in the dark only to arrive back home in the dark.  This is a time of the year for hot drinks and hot soup, warm sweaters and thermal clothing.  It’s also the traditional time in the UK when anglers turn their attention towards pike fishing as many other species settle down in near hibernation for the winter.  On the coldest of days pike can still remain active so will offer the angler good sport.

The winter sun began to rise in the distant horizon amid bars of purple and gold.  The trees and hedgerows glistened in the chill of a winter morn with their branches covered in a thick hoar frost.  All along the river the reed mace and willows were standing statues of ice as they too were covered in frost as well.  The ground was hard underfoot with the puddles and water filled ruts long since turned into ice glass that shattered and crunched once walking boots stood upon them. Out in the river last summer’s fish fry were leaping out of the surface in waves as their shoals were being attacked by perch and pike that had herded the fry shoals into deeper water.  Wave after wave like silvery droplets the fry burst from the rivers surface as bow waving fish chased after them.  This is life in the English winter and perfect conditions for a day’s pike fishing.

Dawn with the sun just beginning to rise when the gate upstream of the lock creaked on its old hinges breaking the silence of the cold day.  Prior to this, only the shouts from distant crows and the farmer’s old cockerel pierced the still morning air.  The gate clattered back against its post and two anglers laden with pike fishing tackle walked through it.  Wrapped up warm in their one piece suits and thermal boots they came fully equipped for the days fishing ahead.  Walking down the footpath at the side of the lock, with frosty breath they chatted quietly about the expectant sport and what size pike they were hoping to catch.  Reaching the deep pool below the locks they stopped for a moment peering over the river with the mist rising off it to marvel at the molten colours being reflected over its glass like surface from the rising of the sun.   Walking a bit further on they decided to settle at the end of the concrete wall on a grassy knoll so they could have command of the whole pool.

Fishing on two rods a piece the anglers mounted their herring dead baits on treble hook traces casting them out to cover the majority of the pool.  Bite indication came from brightly coloured floats fished over depth on simple running ledger rigs.  Once the rods were cast out the anglers settled down on their chairs for a hot cup of tea from their flasks.  The anglers had never fished this particular area for pike before but they had heard tales of big pike that were supposed to live there so thought they would give the pool a go to find out.  Like all intrepid anglers, anticipation tinged with a modicum of excitement was the order of the morning with both anglers having a confident feeling they would be catching big fish.


Down below within the hulk of the sunken coal barge the great monster pike had been alerted by the vibration of splashing and the sound of leads and baits hitting the river bed nearby.  She had heard this many times before and knew that these sounds meant food and that easy pickings might be available.  Travelling towards her on the current the smell of herring fish oil wafted through the ribs and boards of the sunken barge making her fins and body bristle.  She was hungry and knew that all these signs meant food was nearby so with a gentle flick of her powerful tail the huge pike slipped out of her refuge out onto the river bed where she lay still sifting the smells and noises that came to her via the gentle current.

The anglers chatted away whilst watching their floats for signs of activity.  The sun was finally up casting long shadows across the frosty ground and frost covered trees but there was still a cold chill in the air.  A robin had been curious about the two sitting humans and had hopped up close to see if a free meal was available.  Anglers often feed robins their maggots in the winter and as a result of this the birds can become quite tame.  Out in the river the wildfowl were busy about their day coming and going with numerous coots diving in the margins searching for something to eat.   Several boats had come through the locks in the last hour but there had been no activity from either of the angler’s sets of floats.  Then out of the blue one of the floats dipped then came back up again.  Nothing for a few seconds then the float dipped under again resurfacing a couple of seconds later.  The anglers rose from their seats and the owner of the dipping float picked up his rod.  The float began to slowly move away this time but without dipping just slowly cruising across the surface, a sure sign that a large pike had picked up the bait.  It moved across the surface for a few feet then just as slowly began to sink until it was gone.  Winding down on the reel quickly the angler thrust the rod back sideways to set the hooks.  FISH ON!! He cried to his friend.

With the action of the rod bent double and a screaming clutch giving line as the fish surged away, the angler confirmed to his friend it was indeed a good sized fish.   The powerful fish ran towards the lock gates with the tight line cutting through the water’s surface like a cheese wire.  With the fish still taking line the angler started to tighten the clutch to create more resistance in order to tire the fish out but the fish was having none of it so the clutch had to be loosened again.  Again and again the fish made powerful runs in an effort to avoid capture but she was starting to tire against the pull of a 2.5 pound test curve rod and reel clutch that was being tightened again.  So with the set of treble hooks set well in the bone of her jaw the great fish came to the surface for the first time like a submarine blowing its ballast tanks.  “That’s a twenty pound fish for sure” exclaimed the angler holding the landing net for his friend.  The fish turned and dived once more taking yet more line in a last ditch effort at shedding the hooks but it was to no avail.  The fish was played in once more and came near to the surface amid a bubbling vortex of swirling water then it was up lying half on her side beaten and exhausted.  “That’s got to be a twenty” said the angler as he reached out with the landing net to claim him friends prize when all of a sudden the water beneath the fish erupted and a set of huge jaws seized the big fish by the middle causing the angler with the net to fall back in frightened surprise to land square on his backside!

The caught pike disappeared beneath the water as the monster pike took it back down to the deeps in her jaws.  So now with two fish on the angler bent into a determined fight once more having no choice but to loosen his clutch to give line.  The reel carried on screaming with line being stripped off his spool at an amazing rate.  This was not a contest between angler and fish, this was a monster pike fleeing the scene that no amount of nylon and carbon fibre was going to stop.  The clever tigress knew exactly where to run as she headed for a sunken concrete buttress dragging the line behind her tail right across it.   The angler on the bank could do little more than hold on with his rod bent over double when everything went sickeningly slack with his rod springing back.   Both anglers were speechless for seconds neither quite knowing what to make of what they had both just witnessed.  A cold morning had turned out to create more heat and excitement than they had ever experienced with a resultant tale that no one would ever believe.

Whilst out in the depths of the wintery river, the dark shape of the monster pike with the limp body of her prize sized tightly in her great jaws, disappear into the watery gloom.

The cold days of winter have passed and freezing frost gives way to budding trees and hedgerows.  The nights are drawing out and the countryside and country folk breathe a sigh of relief that another hard winter is finally over.  Watery places are starting to see the train of human pilgrimage once more as they flock to be by the water’s edge to bring a touch of nature to their otherwise grey urban world.  At this time of the year with renewed growth starting all around  families take their children to the river to feed the ducks and spend a few relaxing hours just being by the waterside.  Several families stand along the edge of the pool below the locks feeding the ducks that have assembled in quacking squadrons.  One mallard has hatched an early brood of ducklings that are swimming around with their Mum as she competes amongst the other ducks for bread thrown in by the laughing children.  Parents look on as a picture is painted of a quintessential Sunday afternoon spent feeding the ducks.

The mother mallard keen to gather her chicks moves away from the assembly to bring her brood by her side with the intention of heading off downriver.  In sudden alarm the children begin to scream with high pitched terror as the huge head and jaws of a monster pike appear beneath the mother duck.  In a plume of spray and beating wings that flapped for mere seconds the monster pike disappeared as quick and as suddenly as it had appeared leaving eleven ducklings paddling around in confused circles with their mother gone.

With parents trying to calm the crying children a man turns to his wife saying, “I told you I had caught a large pike and another huge pike came and took it.  Perhaps now you will believe me”.

 

Coming soon in the Gates of Doom.

“The Cormorants Comeuppance” with “Predator becomes the Prey”

 

The Little Fisherman.

 

The stream glistens in the morning sun.  Ripples of clear water bubble across rafts of wafting green weed as the midge swarms dance in the shafts of light that stream through the overhanging willow branches.  Morning has come to the river with creatures going about their daily business.  In the shallows minnow shoals assemble to bask in the sunlit pools safe for now whilst the wolf pack perch hide away from the daytime glare amongst the willow root tangles.  With red fins wafting, their dark shapes move back and forth never venturing far from the fortress of sticks.  Out in the main stream a pike lies long and menacing beside a submerged branch with its striped livery matching the sunlit tree bark it nestles beside.  She waits for the roach shoals to innocently pass her by when she will strike with lightning speed from a plume of silt.  Upon a perch above the clear shallow pool, a pair of jet black eyes watches the minnow shoals moving over the sandy riverbed below.  In an instant she picks her target and with wings folded drops like a green dart into a myriad of bubbles to seize its prey.  In the same plume of spray she flies up out of the rivers surface back onto the perch where she beats the fish with a couple of raps against the thin branch.  Then turning the fish to swallow it head first, the kingfisher’s breakfast is served.

Whilst the male and female kingfishers look the same they are in actual fact sexually “dimorphic” which basically means there “is” a difference between the males and females in appearance.  The thing that gives the sexes away is the colour of their beaks.  Bird’s beaks are split into two sections, the upper and lower mandible.  In the case of the kingfisher the male bird has a totally black beak whilst the female has an upper mandible that is black but the lower mandible which is orange.  As the breeding season approaches this lower orange mandible gets brighter in colour so it’s even easier to tell them apart.

Breeding takes place in April through to June when the clutch of oval white eggs, normally five to eight, are laid in a nest at the end of a burrow which is dug  into a waterside bank.  The burrow could be anywhere from 24 to 36 inches in length and it’s easy to tell which burrow is in use as a foul smell emits from its entrance when in use.   Both parents excavate new burrows and both parents incubate the eggs which take up to 20 days to hatch.  However, only the female incubates during the hours of darkness. After the eggs hatch both parents rear the chicks until the young are ready to leave the nest after around 24-25 days where the parents continue to feed the young whilst they learn to fish themselves.

Kingfishers often have two, sometimes three broods per year which is just as well because only around a quarter of this number goes on to survive.  Many young kingfishers will starve or drown if their feathers become so waterlogged that they cannot fly back out of the water when learning to hunt.  Harsh winters also decimate their numbers so it is just as well that these birds have so many broods per year.  Although it is said that the kingfisher has foul tasting flesh, they still have predators in the form of rats and cats.  The main cause for their mortality is starvation, drowning, collision with vehicles and surprisingly, collision with windows.

Kingfishers are mostly solitary birds until the breeding season arrives.  Even so the males in particular remain fiercely territorial and it is not unusual for two males to fight to the death over a female or the territory it presides over.  When fighting ensues the birds will endeavour to hold one another by the beak making attempts to hold the other under water to drown it.  In very harsh winters kingfishers will migrate to the southern most parts of their range and migration always takes place at night.  In years gone by especially in the Victorian era kingfishers were sought after by taxidermists who used to stuff the birds and place them under glass domes.  Their feathers were also sought after by milliners that used to use their feathers for hat decoration whilst fishermen also used their feathers for dressing trout flies.  These practises died out a long time ago.

Kingfishers are an indication of water quality within the areas that they live.  The birds require clean water in order for their prey to exist in populations that will sustain their own numbers.  Minnows in particular form a large part of the bird’s diet along with crustaceans and other invertebrates.  The birds will also take tadpoles and small frogs, lizards and even small snakes.  Most people first spot a kingfisher as it streaks past them just above the water’s surface in a flash of cobalt blue.  This is actually a trick of the light because the bird is not blue at all but rather a deep bottle green that looks like blue in certain light conditions.  The kingfisher does not sing but tends to give out a sharp short whistle, chee, which is repeated two or three times as it flies past.

Murderous Intent or much Maligned Mammal?

 

Mink that live wild in Britain today are not indigenous to our country.  They are American mink (neovison vison) and not to be confused with the European mink which is a different species that is now endangered and has “never” existed in the British Isles.

It is a popular misconception that wild mink populations were originally derived from the releases performed by animal right activists in the 1990’s.  In fact, wild mink had begun to establish themselves decades before that seeing as mink farming originally started in the UK during the 1920’s.  During the Second World War mink farming was reduced but carried on at full production after hostilities ended in 1945.  By the 1950’s there were 400 known fur farms in the UK and many more besides that that were operating as smaller backyard enterprises.   Throughout these years since 1920 mink were being released into the wild either as escapees or via purpose releases such as the mass releases by animals rights activists in the 1990’s or via releases from fur farms due to management negligence.   By 1956, way before the mass releases in the 1990’s, it was confirmed that mink were breeding in the wild and by December 1967 wild mink were present in half the counties in England and Wales and much of lowland Scotland.

Government reaction to the establishment of wild mink in the UK proved indecisive and this reactionary period spanned Labour and Conservative governments from 1951 to 1974.  It was not made clear if there was an actual self-sustaining wild mink population even though Norway already had a substantial American wild mink population.  There was no evidence that serious damage to agriculture or fisheries had taken place in the UK and MAFF held no particular responsibility for the environment.  Biodiversity had not even been conceived at the time either.  The nations Treasury department was reluctant to fund research into possible affects that mink might have upon our native species and claimed the responsibility appeared to lie with the fur industry.  It was not until 1964 that the MAFF mink eradication team was set up consisting of just 7 people but by 1970 this was wound up when it became clear that this level of commitment was totally inadequate.  If mink were to be proven to have had a detrimental effect on our nation’s wildlife, the stone walling from successive governments wasted valuable time in looking for a solution to the problem whilst wild mink populations continued to spread at an alarming rate.

The UK fur farming industry carried on but was subject to growing statutory restrictions from 1975 until it was banned completely as a result of the Fur Farming Prohibition Act of 2000.  Mink kept in those farms still operating prior to 2000 had become domesticated since the 1920’s populations for ease of handling and fur farms still in existence became the targets for the animal rights activists.  Due to the docile behaviour of these mink, most of the mink released by the animal rights activists were quickly re-caught and the very small number that did remain in the wild probably contributed little to the wild mink population anyway.  In fact a survey carried out in the autumn of 2002 on the upper River Avon close to one of the fur farms that was twice targeted by animal rights activists at Ringwood found that mink were only present at half of the sites surveyed.

Mink continue to colonise Britain but areas in the extreme North of Scotland appear to be mink free zones for now.  The colonisation raises other issues about other long lists of introduced species and their effect on our nation’s indigenous biodiversity.   Dealing with invasive introduced species is a massive task and any form of calculated effective strategy remains a long way off.  Even though we appear to have no official policy for the managing of wild mink there is collaboration headed up by the Game and Wildlife Conservation Trust to create one.   Of particular interest is that mink that either escaped or were released from fur farms very quickly reverted back to the brown colouration mink possess in the wild?

Male mink are larger than their female counterparts.  Males can reach 28 inches in length including their tails whilst the females can reach 23 inches long.  The male has a hunting range of up to 4 miles with the female range being slightly smaller.  In warm water the mink can swim for three hours without stopping but in cold water can die within 30 minutes.  The mink’s diet consists of almost anything edible but considering it always likes to live near water fish and other aquatic creatures make up part of its diet.  It will hunt rabbits, rats and mice whilst being the opportunist that will take the young of all species of water fowl.  It will raid chicken coops but is not a surplus killer like that of a stoat or fox taking only what it requires for a meal or for feeding its young.  Even so, almost anything within its hunting range will be taken for food.  Water voles especially fall prey to mink and is one reason why water vole populations have collapsed in recent years.

Mink breed between February and April depending on the range it lives in.  Earlier in the south and later in the north.  Males compete with each other for female mates and the breeding  lasts for 10 days within a three week period.  The young are born blind after a 45-70 day gestation period and live in a den which can be typically a burrow with many entrances, a hollow behind a tree stump or amongst rocks near to water.  The young begin hunting at just eight weeks old staying with their mother until autumn arrives that year when they become independent.  Mink become sexually mature the following spring.

Contrary to what happened here in the UK when domesticated mink entered the wild with no wild mink populations already in existence, in Canada when domestic mink escaped from fur farms it had a derogatory effect on the wild mink populations who were unable to compete with the much larger domesticated mink.  A similar thing happened in Denmark but was also concluded that when domesticated mink enter the wild environment they quickly adjust to significant changes required for their survival.  Research has also concluded that overpopulation of minks has resulted in minks killing each other or driving other mink out to eventually endure starvation.  There is little doubt that the release of captive domesticated mink has massive implications for wild mink and is one reason why the wild European mink (not the American one we have in the UK) has seen a massive decline in numbers over the last 30 years.

As is mostly the case with “some” alien or invasive species introductions there has been a lot of misinformation and scare mongering going off regarding the American mink in the UK.  European research indicates that mink do not tolerate being over populated so take steps themselves to reduce their numbers when this occurs. Mink are also not “surplus killers” like our own native species the fox and stoat so destroys the “myth” that mink will “kill for fun”.   There is little doubt though that the minks introduction has probably a lot to do with the massive decline in water vole populations in the UK.  Fortunately we have come a long way on the conservation front since the 1920’s but still there is much work left to do.

 

Wild Ways Of Little Jenny Wren.

 

The reed stems had long since died back where once they stood proud and green, laying on their side crushed beneath successive winter frosts and winds.  The small brown bird fluttered down from the stark branches above eager to search through the ruin of stems for spiders and other insects.  The flattened undergrowth was covered in a hoar frost that twinkled in the morning winter sunshine as the small bird disappeared within the frozen stems to appear seconds later with a spider in its beak.  Even though the weather was cold and the ground hard from severe frosts that had lasted for two days, the wren had no trouble finding a meal as she searched in every crack and crevice.

The wren (Troglodytes troglodytes) is Britain’s most common breeding bird and one of the smallest.  There is said to be 10 million breeding pairs in Britain and Ireland.  Often only glimpsed as it rushes from thicket to thicket it tends to stay in the lower bushes and tangles because that’s where it finds most of its food.  The wren is an insect feeding bird that takes all forms of insects especially spiders.

During the winter months wrens remain a solitary bird during the day but come nightfall assemble in large numbers to roost communally.  At one roost beneath and old roof where access was gained via a hole in the facia board, 96 wrens were once counted entering the roost.  It is normal for lesser groups of individuals to gather before nightfall so they can all roost together to keep warm.  Roosting sites vary but old nesting boxes and old nests are often favoured sites.  It has been recorded that wrens will purposely build a nest in the late autumn for the specific purpose of using it as a winter roosting site.  The little birds gather at dusk when they pack into these roosts placing their heads inwards and tails outwards as this formation keeps the group warm even in the coldest of temperatures.  Some wrens that have been trapped and ringed by ornithologists in the UK have been found to have migrated as far away as Spain!

The male wren will build several nests but will never line any because once he wins a female she has to choose the nest it will lay her eggs in.  Once she has chosen a nest she will line the nest with fine grasses, hair, moss and feathers.  Mating takes place in April when she will lay a large clutch of white eggs which have fine brown speckles on them.  Only the female incubates the eggs whilst the male bird might have as many as three mates in any one breeding season as they are highly polygynous.

For the size of the bird the wren has an incredibly loud voice often said weight for weight to be ten times louder than that of a cockerel.  The wren is also steeped in folklore and legend.  St Stephen was the first Christian martyr who was supposedly betrayed by a wren when he was trying to hide.  The Ides of March when Julius Caesar was killed was foretold by an unfortunate wren. On the day before the Ides of March,  a wren was seen being pursued in a frenzy by various other birds. With a conspicuous sprig of laurel clamped in its beak, the wren flew desperately into the Roman Senate, but there its pursuers overtook it and tore it to pieces.  The Druids held the wren above all others and regarded the bird as sacred.

 

In Pools of Clear Water

 

The river’s surface shimmered in the moonlight passing silently by in a series of swirling boils and creases.  The quiet of the night was broken by the sharp shrill call of a coot as she made her way across river with head and neck bobbing as she paddled.  In the reed beds other coots were chirping unseen as mother mallard paddled in and out of the reed bed fringes with her brood of twelve little ducklings gathered around her.  Out in the river trout were rising open mouthed to take mayflies which were fluttering down spent and exhausted.  They had danced their dance but with their courtship now completed, the females came back to the water to lay their eggs whilst the males flew off into nearby vegetation to die.

From an overhanging willow branch, a tawny owl screeched out her name.  “Kewick…. Kewick….kewick”.  This is the sound that the female makes whilst the male tawny owl, away from the river bank in a wood nearby calls back “hu……..hu-oooooo” in reply.  Just out from the reed beds there is splashing.  A female otter is out hunting with her noisy squeaking pups.  She is the graceful hunter whilst her brood splash around chasing one another’s tails.  They are still very young and have much to learn.  The mother catches an eel and lies on her back in the water to begin eating it.  The pups realising she has food pounce on her to take it so she leaves the eel to her young whilst she dives under again to search for something else.  Feeding and playing will take place throughout the night before the mother and pups return to their holt to rest when the dawn arrives.

The Otter has been hunted in various forms since the 13thcentury in Britain and was officially designated as being a pest with the introduction of a law in 1566 that authorised local constables to offer rewards and bounties for their destruction because of their fish predation.  Around that time fish ponds were being created on some country estates to supply fish for the wealthy land owners.  It was believed the destruction of otters remained vital if their fish stocks were to survive.  Otters were also thought to be the major competitors with anglers for game fish like trout at the time as well which did not bode well for the otter.  High bounties were paid for hundreds of years on the heads of otters which contributed greatly to their disappearance from many areas.  Hunting otters with dogs became the only effective way of pursuing them along rivers so a special breed, the Otter Hound was created to hunt it.  In the 16th century the Assembly of Norwich ordered that fishermen should conduct two or three otter hunts per year or face a fine for not doing so.  Over the centuries estate game keepers continued to persecute the otter pushing them close to extinction.  It wasn’t to be until 1978 that the otter would be offered its first sanctuary from persecution via partial legislation to protect it in England and Wales.

Otters finally received full protection under the Wildlife and Countryside Act of 1981 then via the Wildlife Order (Northern Ireland) in 1985. In 1994 The EC Habitats Directive was transposed into domestic law with subsequent amendments covering England and Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland.   The otter is now classed as a European Protected Species and therefore has the highest level of protection.

Otter numbers really started to decline in the mid-20th century due to pollution from pesticides such as organochlorine (OCs) and polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs).  Other predatory species also suffered a rapid decline as well.  Species such as peregrine falcons, sparrow hawks and kestrels were affected particularly hard.  Successive bans on these types of pesticides and pesticides such as dieldrin started the slow recovery for predators badly affected by their use and by 1980 otter populations began to recover.  Their recovery was aided by the captive otter breeding programmes in certain areas during the 1980’s and 1990’s when captive bred otters were released into the wild to try and bolster the increase in numbers of otters in the wild.  This and other efforts to help restore waterside and wetland habitats helped tremendously whilst increases in water quality also proved vital for many other species.  In 2011 the Environment Agency announced that otters had returned to every county in England where once they were only known to have existed (breeding) in parts of the West Country and certain parts of Northern England.

Otters will breed at any time in the year and are not restricted to the seasonal breeding patterns of other species.  The female will most likely begin breeding when she is two and a half years old.  Gestation for Lutra lutra is 60-64 days after which 1-4 pups are normally born and the pups remain dependent on their mother for around 13 months.  The male plays no direct parental role but the female and her pups will remain within the male territory throughout this period.  Hunting mostly takes place during the hours of darkness whilst the day is spent in the holt which could be an extended rabbit burrow, old badger set, hollow beneath the roots of trees or even a subterranean   holt where the only access is underwater.  Otters are primarily fish eaters but will also include molluscs, crayfish and birds in their diets.  Otters do not feed on carrion so will only eat from a fresh kill.