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GARDEN VISITORS

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ADDER

If you are lucky enough to live close by to some forest area, this reptile could visit your garden. One of the best known adders is the Common Adder, or common European Viper. Like all vipers, the common adder is venomous but is less aggressive than most venomous snakes and its bite is rarely fatal to humans, of whom it is shy. The adder is the only venomous snake found in Great Britain and the only snake in Scotland. Adders live in a variety of habitats including moors, bogs, open woods, moist meadows and hedgerows. Adult males are usually pale Grey with a contrasting black pattern of dorsal zigzag stripes; adult females may be brown or reddish-brown with a dark brown pattern of zigzag stripes. Individuals from some populations may be entirely black. It prays heavily on small rodents, mammals, mice and voles, but it also eats lizards. It gives birth to live young. In the southern portion of the range females may reproduce every year, in the north females give birth only every two or three years. Adders hibernate underground from October to March. Other reptiles that you may also be fortunate to see in the garden are the slow worm and the grass snake. The slow worm, which is actually a legless lizard, lives mainly on slugs and insects. This creature spends much of the time underground burrowing into soft soil or sand. It may shed its tail to escape an enemy. The grass snake is the largest and most common snake in England and Wales and may be seen in ditches and streams. Amphibians, such as frogs and toads, form the main diet of this reptile. Neither the slow worm or grass snake are venomous.

BATS

Bats are more common than people think. We tend to view them as something sinister linked to ghost or horror films, but its almost certain there were quite a few flying and hunting over your garden last year. The most familiar one that we see is the Pipistrelle. They are found throughout the country from southern England, as far north as the Hebrides and west to Ireland. They are very small; their body only measures about 1.5 ins long (around the size of a harvest mouse), but when they are flying they look a lot larger as they have a wing span of about 8.5 ins. Watching them is difficult as they twist and turn all over the sky searching out their prey using echo location, but if you watch the same area they have the habit of flying the same route over and over again. The best time for bat watching is at sunset, towards the west, towards the dying light of the day. You should then be able to pick out their silhouette against the skyline. The largest bat to be found in the United Kingdom is the Greater Horseshow Bat - grows to a length of nearly 7 ins. Don’t worry about the old myth - they will not entangle themselves in your hair. There are quite a few other bats which are native to the British Isles, these include the Common Long-Eared, the Noctule and the Natterer’s. Bats roost in a variety of locations including caves, hollow trees, church spires and eaves of houses. Many bats are on the endangered list and if you have them present in your attic or cellar you should note that in the United Kingdom and Northern Ireland expelling, or excluding bats, without prior notification to the proper authorities is a punishable offence. The proper authorities to seek guidance from include: English Nature, Scottish Natural Heritage, The Countryside Council for Wales, or the Countryside and Wildlife Branch of the Department of the Environment in Northern Ireland.
Note: Certain bats may be carrying the Rabies virus and should therefore not be touched.

BIRDS

There are a wide range of birds that visit gardens on a regular basis. The sparrow, which was so common a few years ago, now seems to be in decline in most parts of the country. Some people believe this is due to the climatic changes we are experiencing, other to the predation of eggs and chicks by birds such as magpies and crows - now so common in innercity areas. The wren (which brings memories of pre-decimal coinage) can still be seen flitting around at an extremely fast pace. Magpies seem to abound of recent years and there was a time when the only seagull to be seen was by the sea, or coastal areas. These, along with a diverse range of other birds, have made the inner city their home. Gardens with a large pond can expect to get a visit from water fowl which could include the coot or moorhen. It is common to see ducks, geese and herons flying overhead on their way to and from their roosting sites. Herons, which will be discussed in a separate article, are an entirely different proposition! During the summer months we can expect to see swifts, swallows and house martins weaving their way across the skies. Songbirds, such as blackbirds, with their heads cocked listening for worms, and thrushes add charm to the garden with their repetitive chirping ‘phrases’. All of these visitors assist the gardener by eating snails and other insects. To attract an even more diverse selection, including finches and tits, hang bird seed or nuts from purpose built nets - or erect a ‘bird bath’.

CATS

This family pet, loved by some and hated by others, is a frequent visitor to gardens. It is a strange fact that cats hardly ever defecate in their owners gardens - they tend to do it in yours! Apart from the household pet you are also likely to be visited by feral cats - those that have gone wild and live by predation or by eating food put out for other pets. Although cat lovers will say that there pet is a ‘lovely creature’ it is no such thing when let loose in the garden. Cats are responsible for the destruction of a large range of wildlife including birds and small mammals. In Australia there is a program in operation to eradicate feral cats. These ‘furry pets’ that have gone wild have been decimating the local wildlife. I believe there is also action being taken to ensure that owners control their pets in suburban areas where some marsupials are still present. The same could be said of our inner city areas - how many owners care what their cat is up to once it has gone wandering? What I always ask is what would happen if I were to allow my dog to jump over someones garden and dig it up! Many methods for stopping cats soiling, or digging the garden have been put forward, which include bottles filled with water (to reflect their image), wire mesh or netting over seed beds, chicken manure, lion manure and moth balls. You can also buy purpose built ‘cat cut-outs’ which have reflective eyes. None of these methods seem to have a 100% success rate and it is unlikely you can prevent these incursions.

DRAGONFLY

Dragonflies are recognised by their elongated body, agile flight and two roughly equal pairs of membranous wings. The order is divided into two sub orders, the dragonflies which hold their wings spread when resting, and the damselflies, which hold their wings together above their body when resting. Members are found in all tropical and temperate regions of the world. The adult head consists largely of the compound eyes; the antennae are short and hair like. Mouthparts are adapted for biting and for scooping prey from the air. The legs are located far forward on the body and are used mainly to grasp a resting spot such as a twig. The largest dragonfly, the Emperor Dragonfly is a swift and efficient hunter which patrols stretches of water at up to eighteen miles per hour, guarding its territory from other males and catching flying insects on the wing. Adults live for about one month, after a nymphal (larval) stage that lasts for two years. This particular beauty is found in the south and Wales in summer around lakes, ponds and canals. It is absent in Scotland. The wingspan of this dragonfly reaches 4.5 ins. Many other dragonflies are common to all parts of Britain including the Brown Aeshna and the Four-Spotted Libellula. These insects visit the garden, particularly if you have a pond, during the summer months and most females drop their eggs into the water, whilst others attach the eggs to the stems of aquatic plants just beneath the surface of the water. Some dragonflies deposit their eggs in elongated slits that they make in the stems of the plant, above or below the water line. The eggs develop into nymphs and spend their life entirely submerged, feeding on other aquatic animals and small fish.

RED FOX

Widespread throughout Europe, the Red Fox is the most abundant of the large carnivores and occurs in a wide variety of habitats, but usually in places with cover; in many areas it goes into villages and because of the dwindling natural open spaces is a frequent visitor in towns and even very built up areas. The vixen (female), which is smaller than the male, raises her young in the spring and a cavity under a garden shed is an ideal place for this purpose. You are probably more likely to see a fox roaming your neighbourhood than you are a stray dog. Dog-like in appearance with distinctive pointed ears, a narrow muzzle and a bushy white tipped tail, the Red Fox measures about 120cm in length, one third of which may be the tail, has a shoulder height of up to 40cm and weighs up to 10kg. Its colour is variable but usually rich reddish brown above and white below. Its food consists mainly of rodents but a variety of larger animals and soft fruit are also eaten; animals living in towns scavenge and are often mangy. Litters of 3 - 8 cubs are born in an underground earth. The presence of a Red Fox can be detected by its purposeful tracks which do not normally wander and pause like those of a domestic dog; the scattered remains of food around its den; a distinctive musty smell, and long twisted droppings containing hair, bone and insect remains. A variety of yaps and barks, or the vixens blood curdling scream, may be heard especially in the winter. Gardens provide a rich hunting ground for the fox where they can find scraps of domestic waste, pet food and insects. The Red Fox is the main carrier of Rabies in Europe.

FROGS AND TOADS

Frogs are usually small animals that have smooth, moist skin, bulging eyes and external eardrums behind the eyes. The adults lack a tail. Frogs have long hind legs and most species can take long leaps. Many species also have webbed feet, making them excellent swimmers. Frogs aid humans in many ways. They control insect pests in wooded areas, farms and gardens, and several species have been introduced to various parts of the world as a defence against undesirable insects. Frogs are also important for research and medical laboratories because their skeletal, muscular, digestive and nervous systems are similar to higher animals. Although many people find then repugnant they are a true friend to the gardener. In the last few years their numbers have declined due to a viral disease. It is therefore important to try and reverse this trend and the easiest way of doing this is to build a small water feature in you garden. It is a wonderful sight on a summer evening, particularly after a rain shower, to watch them hop down the garden in search of all those garden pests which are damaging you plants. Toads, another amphibian, are usually distinguished from frogs by the roughness of their skin due to a large number of glandular tubercles (nodules). Toads, which have shorter legs than frogs, are shy and are normally nocturnal by nature. Toads are often more stouter than frogs and cannot jump as far. Again this is an animal that is a true friend to the gardener.

HEDGEHOG

There are three species of hedgehog common to Europe, but the Northern Hedgehog (Erinaceus europaeus) is the most widespread and common. Hedgehogs are found in a wide variety of habitats, mainly wooded, but are often to be found in suburban gardens. Hedgehogs grow up to 25cm long (the tail is mainly concealed) and weigh between 800 and 1400gms, depending on the time of the year. Although unlikely to be confused with any other animal, the three species are very similar. Hedgehogs are mainly active in the twilight and at night. They are often very noisy and can run and climb, although the normal reaction to the onset of danger is to roll up into a ball, erecting the spines at different angles and covering the soft underparts. Hedgehogs are mainly insectivorous but if you wish to help feed them, particularly before their hibernation period, tinned cat food and water left in the garden will help fatten them up before winter. They make nests of leaves and grasses and between 2 and 9 pink, soft-spined young are born in late spring or early summer. Sometimes there may be a second litter. These animals, if present in your garden, are the ideal solution to many pests, particularly slugs, beetles and caterpillars.

GREY HERON

Another bird that visits suburban gardens with ponds on a regular basis, mainly to rob the pond of fish, is the Gaunt Grey Heron. Gaunt grey herons are among the most familiar of our local water birds and are an unwelcome visitor to the garden. Fresh or salt, clear or muddy, all waters are acceptable so long as it will yield something worthwhile. The bird doesn’t always wait for quarry but stalks through the shallows with long deliberate strides, neck muscles tensed for spearing. Eventually a fish will pay the price of carelessness as the heron’s kinked neck is straightened with startling speed and the sharp bill stabs its prey - sometimes several times. At Breydon in Norfolk, herons are also known as marshmen’s harnser and will wade until the body is afloat. Young birds are taken in hard weather by full-grown birds and they also eat mice, rats and water voles. The heron’s breeding season is prolonged. In early February, in a mild season, they may be seen soaring over the nesting wood or chasing one another tilting from side to side and diving headlong. Next to the mute swan the heron is our largest common bird. Herons build their nests, which are large, in the highest trees constructed from branches and sticks and an average clutch of eggs is three or four, which take about 27 days to hatch. Herons suffer greatly during severe weather but starvation is not the only cause of death. Recovery reports of dead birds list examples of death as ‘caught in telephone wires’, ‘found dead outside fox’s earth’ and ‘shot poaching goldfish’. The latter is something a lot of pond owners may well feel like doing themselves after see their prize fish disappearing down the throat of a heron. To stop them approaching suburban ponds you can put fishing line, attached to sticks, around the pond about 14 inches high and a foot from the pond edge. This prevents the heron from getting to the edge of the pond, their favoured position for an attack. You can also cover ponds with meshing or nets but this may look unattractive, or damage aquatic plants that are in the pond. You can normally hear when a heron is in the vicinity - their blood curdling calls are easily recognised. Herons are tall(37ins) with long legs and necks, grey and white plumage and yellowish legs and bill. During the breeding season the legs and bill can become redder. In flight the heron looks very large with broad, arched wings. Herons have been known to live for up to 25 years.

MICE

Mice are a frequent visitor to both the garden and the home and are widely distributed across the world. Alert, nimble and adaptable, the house mouse is most active by night. It has a strong smell and inside the home can be unhygienic and destructive. Mice are hard to get rid of and they breed very fast - possibly ten litters a year. The young leave the nest (found in every sort of place) after three weeks and the females are soon ready to breed. Cereals and fat are their favourite diet. The relative abundance of mice in a given area can be determined by the analysis of the pellets of birds of prey. Mice form the major part of the diet for a number of mammals, reptiles and birds of prey. Although the house mouse is the most frequent visitor to human dwellings others, such as the field mouse may enter seeking food. The harvest mouse and wood mouse are two other native species that are common in fields and woodlands. Spring loaded traps and poisons are available for us to eradicate these vermin, and there are humane traps available where you catch and simply release any mouse that has been trapped. The only drawback with the humane option is that the mouse, once released, will probably return to its nest site within a short time.

NEWTS

Another amphibian that you may be lucky enough to have in your garden, more so if you have a pond, is the common newt. Widespread mainly in lowland Britain, this is the only newt found in Ireland. Although becoming common in gardens, woodlands near to a pond is the favourite haunt for summer and autumn months, and also for winter hibernation. In spring they move to breeding ponds where eggs are individually wrapped in plant leaves. The newly hatched are equipped with gills. The young leave the water and spend the next few years on land in damp, wooded areas. They eventually return to the water. Common European species include the smooth newt, the palmate newt and the crested newt; the male of which develops a crest during the breeding season. The three species we have in Britain are all semi-aquatic spending nine months of the year on land, returning to the water in early spring to spawn. The name newt is applied to certain members of a family of relatively small salamanders, most of which spend at least part of their life in water. The many species are widely distributed throughout the temperate regions of the northern hemisphere. Newts often are brightly coloured and active and most are about 8 - 14 cm (about 3 to 5.5 ins) long. Newts hide under stones or logs by day; at night they hunt slugs,worms and even other newt.

RABBIT

Originally from north-west Africa and Iberia, the rabbit has been introduced and spread to much of Europe and many other parts of the world. They occupy virtually any habitat that provides grass and herbage for grazing, and sufficient soil for them to excavate burrows. Rabbits grow to about 45cm, have a short (less than 80mm) tail, and weigh up to about 2.2kg. The most distinctive features are the short, white, fluffy tail and long ears. Rabbits are most active at dawn and dusk; when they nibble green plants and gnaw bark. In fact over the last two centuries they have become an agricultural pest, eating food crops. They live colonially in warrens, but occasionally live entirely above ground. The rabbit is a sociable animal which deposit their latrines on mole or ant hills. Four to six young make up a normal litter size and they are mature at about 3 months. The introduction of the disease myxamatosis into the rabbit population in the 1950’s put a temporary reduction on the rabbit population. However, in the past 20 years or so, widespread resistance to the disease has resulted in greater numbers being seen across the country - in many places back up to 1950’s levels.

RATS

Rats of the rattus species are either brown or black. Both brown and black rats are a disease spreading pest that will eat anything. The brown rat is found in many sites - sewers, rubbish tips, muddy shores, buildings and farms (where large populations soon build up). Rats form colonies and live underground in burrows. Up to five litters every year produce 50 or so young, born naked and blind. they emerge from the burrow aged about three weeks. Originally from southern Asia, the black rat (also known as the ship or house rat) now has a worldwide distribution; in Europe it has largely been displaced by the brown rat particularly in Britain. The colouring is variable, but often blackish above and smokey below. They are opportunistic feeders, mainly nocturnal and very sociable. They breed throughout the year. It is most likely to be confused with the brown rat, but the black rat has a more pointed muzzle, and larger eyes and ears. The brown rat (also known as the common or Norway rat) is found almost worldwide as a result of accidental introduction by man. They occur mainly around human settlements, but also on farmland, sea shores, river banks and on ships. Colours vary considerably; the commonest form is brownish above, paler below, but blackish forms are not uncommon. Brown rats make extensive burrows and are strong swimmers. They are omnivores, and in turn are major prey for animals such as foxes, polecats, cats and owls. Both species cause extensive damage to stored food, and their droppings, tooth marks and general spoliation are characteristic. Brown rats are the larger with proportionately smaller ears, a blunter muzzle and shorter tail. They are the ancestors of laboratory and other domesticated varieties of rat. They do say that in London you are never more that 10 feet away from a rat - a worrying thought!

SQUIRREL

Another common garden visitor, the grey squirrel is distinguished from the red squirrel by their grey fur, and their larger, more robust build. Originally a native of the deciduous woodlands of eastern North America, the grey squirrel was introduced into Britain in the late nineteenth early twentieth century and nowadays it is widespread and abundant throughout England and Northern Ireland, Wales, south of Cumbria, and are common in local pockets in Scotland. Strangely though, they are absent from the rest of mainland Europe, except for small localised pockets in Italy. It has largely displaced our native red squirrel which is, in many regions, confined to more extensive tracts of coniferous forests, and is totally extinct in most of lowland Britain. The grey squirrel is slightly larger than the red , and grows to a length of up to 30cm, plus a tail of up to 25cm, and a weight of up to 750gm. Although normally grey, the back can often be reddish brown and there is always a reddish brown colour on the flanks. However, the grey squirrel always lacks ear tufts - which the red squirrel has in winter. The grey squirrel is diurnal (during the day) and spends more time on the ground than the red squirrel. It builds its nest (drey) in holes in trees, in lofts of buildings, or the fork of a tree close to the trunk. It makes a variety of chattering noises and can only be distinguished from the red squirrel by its colouration. The red squirrel has the same nesting habits and their dreys are built in the same way, again usually in hollow trees. The red squirrel spends more time in its drey during the winter, which is more untidy than the grey squirrels drey. Young of both are produced in litters of between 3 and 7, which become independent at about 2 months and mature at one year. Both red and grey squirrels feed on a wide variety of shoots, nuts, berries, fungi, insects and the eggs and young of birds.

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