Last weekend was insanely busy, so much so that I wish I could have had another weekend to recover! But for all it was tiring, it was great fun and I learnt a lot of new things. On Saturday I travelled once again to the Wildwood in Kent for the follow up course to the small mammal trapping course I wrote about last weekend.
This course focused more on identifying the larger mammals found in Kent, ranging from deer and badger, to hare, weasel and hedgehog. Throughout the morning we learnt about the different identifying features of each mammal (for example, there is a ferret, a polecat, and a polecat-ferret, the latter of which is a hybrid of the first two and looks very simialar to a polecat, but the face markings don’t extend down to the nose – a true polecat looks as though it has a bandits mask on).
After discussing the main visible features to help identify any given species present in Kent, we looked at field signs to help identify species if no animal is visible; these ranged from tracks, pathways, prints and tracks, hair or fur on wire fencing, or droppings. These can give a very good indication of what species left them, as each species has slightly different field signs that, with a bit of practice, will enable you to not need to see the animal. Droppings in particular are very useful, and quite a challenge to guess what left them; so much so that we had a short ‘Who’s Poo’ quizz in the afternoon!
Before lunch our tutor also took us through other signs – skulls. Skulls can tell you if the animal was a rodent; a herbivore; an insectivore; a carnivore. Rodents have teeth that grow continuously, and so are sharpened and trimmed by gnawing on things, like beavers, or squirrels, to keep them in check. Shrews are one of the few species that have iron deposits on their teeth that help them chomp through insects. Badgers have a crest on the top of their skull (much more prominent in males) to which the muscles attach to their powerful jaws; badger jaws are also incapable of dislocating, unlike a foxes.
The skulls below look very white and clean because they have been in bleach. The roe deer skull, complete with antlers, is as it was found.
We also learnt the difference between antlers and horns; an antler is bone, growing each year under the protection of living skin (the velvet), which is then shed to leave the antlers in all their glory, before these too fall off and the whole things starts again, only antlers grow bigger with each year. Horn grows over the bone and grows continuously each year, a bit like trees – you can often see each annual growth ring on the horn, such as ram horns.
In the afternoon sunshine we had a wander around the grounds of Wildwood, looking out for field signs (we saw mole hills and rabbit burrows, found pine cones that had been eating by squirrels, and got to compare rabbit and fallow deer poo), and looking at the mammals themselves; otter (Lutra lutra); badger (Meles meles); red fox (Vulpes vulpes), three of the deer species (red, fallow and muntjac), weasel (Mustela nivalis), stoat (Mustela erminea) and polecat (Mustela putorius), to name a few.
We also saw european bison (Bison bonasus), wild boar (Sus scrofa) and the closet thing we have to a wild horse – the Konik . The true wild horse, the Tarpan, is now extinct, but by back-breeding generations of horses that were descended from the original wild horse, Koniks are wonderfully hardy ponies that are used to manage woodlands as much as they are pastures and meadows. They are extremely hardy ponies, can thrive off very little or poor quality food and their hooves break off naturally when they get too long, so they need very little care.
The dark line down the centre of his back in the picture below is known as a dorsal stripe.