Saturday 4 April 2015

Wildwood Trust

There are a few wildlife parks and zoos that specialise in one sort of animal or habitat or another. Many of these are among my favourite institutions in the UK: I've blogged about Crocodiles of the World in Oxfordshire (here), which holds over half of the world's crocodilian species. There is Wildlife Heritage Foundation in Kent which specialises in wild cats, and of course the nine Wildfowl and Wetland Trust reserves in the UK, which specialise in ducks, geese, swans, screamers, and other water birds and wetland habitats in general. Another favourite is Highland Wildlife Park in the highlands of Scotland which features mostly British and European species as well as those from high latitudes and altitudes, i.e. the poles and mountains.

There are a small number of collections in a similar vein which specialise in British creatures. Just because we don't have lions and tigers (any more), it doesn't mean the UK lacks interesting, charismatic, and beautiful creatures. I've yet to visit the British Wildlife Centre in Surrey, but I took a visit to The Wildwood Trust in Kent last April, and it doesn't disappoint on the front of offering good views of living British species, species that have gone extinct from the UK in historic times, and the odd species from Europe.

All photographs taken below by Mo Hassan, April 2014, at Wildwood Trust.

The author not really holding a badger.

European jay
Garrulus glandarius glandarius (Linnaeus, 1758)
Corvidae; Passeriformes; Aves; Chordata

The jay is Britain's most colourful corvid (member of the crow family), yet one of its shiest. Most people will have seen this bird in wooded areas of parks, noticing the beautiful blue wing patch. I rarely get close enough to wild jays in the UK, so this remains the best photo I have taken of one. The Trust also holds rooks (Corvus frugilegus), magpies (Pica pica), and jackdaws (Coloeus monedula), more commonly seen members of the crow family, the individuals being animals in rehabilitation.

Scottish wildcat
Felis silvestris grampia Miller, 1907
Felidae; Carnivora; Mammalia; Chordata

The wildcat is well known in Europe, Africa, and western parts of Asia, and for the most part a relatively common species. It is well known as the wild ancestor of the domestic cat, believed to have been tamed in the Middle East some 10,000 years ago, but not necessarily in Egypt, which is where the domestication is usually thought to have happened, from the African wildcat, Felis silvestris lybica. There is evidence (published by Vigne et al. in 2004 in Science) of domesticated cats in Cyprus dating from 9,500 years BP. Wildcats are also native to the UK, but are nowadays threatened with extinction and limited to isolated patches of pine forest in Scotland. They look like a somewhat chubby tabby cat, with greyish-brown fur and a white muzzle and chest patch. However, black individuals are known, and as the gene pool is diluted with genes from domestic cats, other colours are appearing, threatening the future of pure-bred Scottish wildcats.

Short-eared owl
Asio flammeus flammeus (Pontoppidan, 1763)
Strigidae; Strigiformes; Aves; Chordata

There are four native owls in Great Britain: tawny, barn, long-eared, and short-eared, along with the now quite widespread introduced little owl. Of these, I have seen tawny, barn, and little owls in the wild, but never either of the "eared" owls. The long-eared owl looks like a small version of an eagle owl, and is surprisingly small when seen in the flesh. The Wildwood Trust has the other elusive species, the short-eared owl. Although it does indeed have short ear tufts, as can be seen above, usually, the owl keeps these close to its head and does not usually show them. Short-eared owls fly by day but aren't abundant in the UK, despite being found in most continents of the world.

Eurasian lynx
Lynx lynx (Linnaeus, 1758)
Felidae; Carnivora; Mammalia; Chordata

There was once a time when this species lived in the UK, not as long ago as we might have thought. Lynx were assumed to have gone extinct in Britain after the end of the last Ice Age, between 10,000 and 4,000 years ago. However, remains of Eurasian lynx from Yorkshire have been carbon dated to around 1550 years BP (Hetherington, Lord & Jacobi, 2006), which works out to 450 AD. For some context, this is the time Anglo-Saxons began to invade the country from mainland Europe; in other words, the Romans may have encountered lynxes when they lived here.

Eurasian grey wolf
Canis lupus lupus Linnaeus, 1758
Canidae; Carnivora; Mammalia; Chordata

Wolves are also former wild denizens of Great Britain. The last individuals were believed to have survived in Scotland until 1684, and clung on in Ireland until 1786. Wherever wolves coexist with humans, they are usually the losers. Except in the case of the domestic dog, of course a descendant of wild wolves. The species was formerly distributed across the Northern Hemisphere, but has lost much of its range in the United States, Mexico, southern Europe, and Japan, and is threatened in many other former strongholds, such as Canada and Russia. It would be a real shame to lose such a charismatic animal for good.

European badgers
Meles meles meles (Linnaeus, 1758)
Mustelidae; Carnivora; Mammalia; Chordata

I love badgers. Where I live in suburban Hertfordshire, I rarely get to see one alive. Dead ones are aplenty on the trunk roads around here, and I learned more about badgers than from any book or documentary from being able to dissect a large male I found freshly killed on the side of the road back in 2011. The only photo I have of living badgers is of this pair sleeping at the Wildwood Trust. They are members of the weasel family, the largest in the UK, with well-developed scent glands used for defence and communication between individuals. The black and white stripes are believed to be an example of aposematic coloration, a phenomenon well-known in skunks (a not-too-distant relative of badgers), where the animal advertises its unpalatable odour and taste with warning colours like black and white or yellow and black.

Western polecat
Mustela putorius anglia Pocock, 1936
Mustelidae; Carnivora; Mammalia; Chordata

Britain's other native mustelids (weasels) are the weasel itself, the stoat (or ermine), pine marten, otter, and polecat (the American mink is an introduced predator of water voles). The polecat is well known as the ancestor of the ferret. This is most likely true, but because pretty much all wild polecats from western Europe (the species Mustela putorius) are dark in colour, with the exception of the aposematic mask, it has been hypothesised that another species, the eastern European and Asian steppe polecat (M. eversmanii) is partially responsible for the pale coloration of domesticated ferrets. Polecats were formerly widespread in Great Britain, but are now restricted to Wales and some parts of England.

Male Reeves' muntjac
Muntiacus reevesi (Ogilby, 1839)
Cervidae; Artiodactyla; Mammalia; Chordata

Britain has two native deer: the red and the roe. The fallow deer was introduced by the Normans in around the 11th Century from mainland Europe, and is now one of the most widespread and familiar species of deer in the UK. Several others have been introduced over the years, most failing to set up self-sustaining populations outside of deer parks, but the diminutive East Asian Reeves' muntjac has become the most abundant and easily seen deer in southeast England. Males can be distinguished from females by its small antlers, which the female lacks, and they are usually seen in forested habitat, although they often visit gardens.

Pine marten
Martes martes martes (Linnaeus, 1758)
Mustelidae; Carnivora; Mammalia; Chordata

There are stoats, weasels, otters, and mink at the Wildwood Trust although I didn;t manage to see any of these there on my visit. The pine marten is widespread in forests in most of Europe, and can be seen easily when in captivity because it is often active by day. In the wild in Britain, however, it is rare and restricted to Scotland, northern England, Wales, and Ireland, being nowhere common, but they regularly visit feeders in parts of Scotland where it is most easily observed in the wild.

Wild boar
Sus scrofa scrofa Linnaeus, 1758
Suidae; Artiodactyla; Mammalia; Chordata

Yet another wild animal which has a domesticated descendant, the wild boar became extinct in Britain in medieval times, despite being a good source of food for the human population of the time. They have been illegally reintroduced several times, with populations roaming parts of the Forest of Dean in western England and Kent/East Sussex in the southeast. I'm often struck by the size of these beasts, they are always bigger than I expect them to be. However, boar might be able to recolonise the UK without our help. An individual managed to reach British shores by swimming from France in 2013 - OK, it didn't reach mainland Great Britain, or even the Isle of Wight, but the island of Alderney which is seven miles from the Normandy coast. The animal was shot because it could potentially be a rabies vector, as Britain is mostly rabies-free. Mostly and not completely, because bats are vectors and can migrate from the continent and thus infect other mammals including humans, although this is as yet unrecorded.

European elk
Alces alces (Linnaeus, 1758)
Cervidae; Artiodactyla; Mammalia; Chordata

The largest deer in the world is either this guy or the American moose, depending on whose taxonomy you believe. Both were considered the same species just going by different names (confusingly, there are elk in North America too, but a different animal altogether, an animal closer to the red deer of the Old World - the American elk is then known as the wapiti to avoid [or just add to?] the confusion). However, individuals from Europe and most of Asia are considered a different subspecies from those in North America and eastern Russia - the European elk are smaller but as they were the first to be described (by Linnaeus) they keep the name Alces alces, while the moose is called either A. alces americana or A. americana. This is either a cow or young bull, I can't tell. Again, elk were found in Britain until around the time of the last Ice Age.

Wisent, or European bison
Bison bonasus bonasus (Linnaeus, 1758)
Bovidae; Artiodactyla; Mammalia; Chordata

Smaller and more uniform in colour than the American bison or "buffalo", the wisent or European bison is a globally threatened animal that was once widespread throughout Europe. It now remains only in captivity and reintroduced populations. Soon before it became completely extinct, the population being restricted to the Białowieża Forest in Poland, from where all captive and reintroduced populations currently alive have come from. Just like the "beefalo" (a hybrid of American bison and cattle used for lean meat and its increased hardiness compared to cattle), the wisent is sometimes crossed with cattle to produce a żubroń, which can reproduce if female but not if male. To avoid this, they are backcrossed with cattle to produce fertile offspring.

Grass snake
Natrix natrix (Linnaeus, 1758)
Colubridae; Squamata; Sauropsida; Chordata

The grass snake is one of only three native snakes in the UK, and is the most widespread. It isn't venomous, but if handled or otherwise threatened, it will pretend to be dead, not just by lying still with its tongue sticking out, but also by producing a noxious odour, somewhat similar to garlic, from its cloaca (rear end, basically). You can commonly see these guys at the London Wetland Centre if you know where and when to look, most reliably under tiles or corrugated iron where they will spend most of the day.

Four-lined snakes
Elaphe quatuorlineata (Lacépède, 1789)
Colubridae; Squamata; Sauropsida; Chordata

The four-lined snake is a rat snake found in southern Europe, and has never been native to Britain. The Aesculapian snake (Zamenis longissima), named after the classic symbol of many medical professions, the snake wrapped around a staff, thus derived from the Roman Aesculapius (Greek: Asclepius), god of healing, occurs in a small part of London near Regents Park, after a breeding colony escaped from the zoo. 

Male Western green lizard
Lacerta bilineata Daudin, 1802
Lacertidae; Squamata; Sauropsida; Chordata

Green lizards occur in most of Europe, being replaced by other species of related genera in other surrounding areas. The species was split into two based on genetic differences, the western being native to continental Europe west of the Adriatic Sea, and the eastern from the Balkans to Turkey and Ukraine. The western green lizard also occurs on Jersey in the English Channel, making it a British species (only just), although its native status is under question. The male (told by his green and blue coloration) is warming himself in the lower photo against the black walls of his rather spacious enclosure. 

European pond turtle
Emys orbicularis (Linnaeus, 1758)
Emydidae; Testudines; Sauropsida; Chordata

This is the terrapin of most of Europe, which sadly never reached the UK since becoming extinct before the Ice Ages. Instead we have feral populations of red-eared sliders (Trachemys elegans scripta) from North America released since the first Teenage Mutant Hero Turtles craze (I know they're supposed to be ninja turtles but I was brought up on Hero turtles so they're Hero turtles, OK?)

Female adder
Vipera berus (Linnaeus, 1758)
Viperidae; Squamata; Sauropsida; Chordata

The adder is Britain's only venomous snake. I'm not saying it wouldn't be painful, but only the very young, old, and sick need to worry about dying from an adder bite, with only fourteen known fatalities since the late nineteenth century in the UK. Most fatal bites occur on livestock and pets. Male adders have a more contrasting colour pattern than females, but both have the zigzag, and both can occur in black colour morphs, like Rowan Atkinson's historical character.

Black-crowned night heron
Nycticorax nycticorax nycticorax (Linnaeus, 1758)
Ardeidae; Pelecaniformes; Aves; Chordata

The black-crowned night heron is a very widespread bird, being found on five continents but rarely occurs in Britain as a vagrant from either Europe or North America. It is mostly active at twilight, hence the name, and can usually be distinguished from other herons at a distance by its very long head plumes, unfortunately not visible in this photo (stay tuned for more later though).

Little egret
Egretta garzetta garzetta (Linnaeus, 1766)
Ardeidae; Pelecaniformes; Aves; Chordata

Little egrets used to be rare visitors to Britain until late in the 20th Century when breeding populations began to become established in southern England. Now it is usual for populations to be resident, and I see little egrets at all times of year in Hertfordshire. They are related to the snowy egret (E. thula) of the Americas and are very very similar indeed.

Hybrid of black-crowned night heron and little egret
Nycticorax nycticorax x Egretta garzetta
Ardeidae; Pelecaniformes; Aves; Chordata

There is one odd individual at Wildwood Trust that appears to be a hybrid between the night heron and the egret, as the two species share an aviary. Although in different genera, they seem to be able to produce a cross-species hybrid, which shares some of the characteristics of each parent: note the long white head plume of Nycticorax and mottled body plumage somewhere inbetween night heron grey and egret white.

Edible or fat dormouse
Glis glis (Linnaeus, 1766)
Gliridae; Rodentia; Mammalia; Chordata

I don't like either of this guy's common names: OK, the ancient Romans used to fatten Glis glis and eat them, but it's such a cute creature it deserves something a little less offensive to it. It occasionally goes by its scientific name, something that just means "dormouse" in Latin, repeated for good measure. The genus name is sometimes quoted as Myoxus but Glis has priority. They look a bit like squirrels and not their close relative the hazel dormouse (Muscardinus avellanarius). The Romans possibly tried to introduce Glis glis to Britain as a food animal, and there are bones of this animal dating to around the time of Roman occupation, but the animals were more likely brought in already killed and smoked for preservation. They were subsequentrly introduced to western Hertfordshire by Sir Walter Rothschild at the beginning of the 20th Century, well, they were believed to have escaped from his home in Tring (now part of the Natural History Museum, London). They are considered pests when they invade houses, becoming noisy during the evenings in the summer months, but is quiet for most of the year because of a long period of hibernation common to both British dormice.

Eurasian harvest mouse
Micromys minutus (Pallas, 1771)
Muridae; Rodentia; Mammalia; Chordata

Finally here's the harvest mouse, Europe's smallest rodent, a truly tiny mouse. It is well known for its little grassy nests built up the stems of cultivated grasses.

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