Wildlife Gardening in April

N.B. If your new to David’s monthly column then please be sure to read the ‘setting-the-scene’ opening piece first.

Yucky UK Wildlife

The recent flash floods in northern Kenya, that have caused chaos in the Samburu National Park (http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/world/africa/8550840.stm) remind me of one of the possible positive side effects of studying British wildlife.

© Laurie Campbell: Otter

© Laurie Campbell: Otter

I did, quite some time ago (Late 1970s and early 1980s), become involved, as an unpaid volunteer, in the Mammal Society’s otter survey – to determine the population levels of the fast declining species. Following this work, and organising the first UK otter conservation event, I became involved on the committee of the Otter Trust. The Otter Trust, under the charismatic leadership of Philip Wayre, bred otters, which were eventually released to ‘jump start’ the restoration of UK otter populations.
It was a very positive phase of my life, and one of which I am proud. But it had another lovely ‘spin-off’. For much later the Goldsmiths’ Company offered grants for ‘mature people’ to do some research of their own. I applied for, and achieved, a substantial grant to spend six weeks looking for otters in Kenya. Had I not previously been involved in wildlife conservation I would not have been given the cash.

I had a wonderful time moving around wildlife areas searching out signs of Aonyx capensis, the Cape clawless otter, being chased by hippos (he lost interest before I was exhausted) and trying to avoid crocodiles and buffalo (successfully).

If you are an amateur working with wildlife – keep your eyes open for similar grants – for they do sometimes appear.

HART, Hampshire Animal Rescue and Treatment, (http://www.hartwildlife.org.uk/) is moving to bigger premises to carry out its positive work. Associated with their new treatment and teaching facility is a large field and I have been providing advice on the development of this area into a nature reserve and educational area. If any other UK wildlife or conservation organisations would like a copy of my suggestions, and management scheme, then I am happy to share it with them in the hope it will aid their own scheme.

Yucky UK wildlife – something different for All Fools’ month!

Now be honest, you do not love all UK wildlife. There are some organisms that you’d prefer not to be here … and I’m not talking about rabbits. I’m talking about parasites that feed off us and other wildlife, because they too are part of the wildlife symphony.

Some organisations recommend a regular cleaning out of nest boxes, to remove parasites. I leave my boxes untouched for my view is that these fleas, lice and other bloodsuckers have a right to survive (so long as they are not on me!).

There was recently a great news item on the BBC web site (http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/sci/tech/8547454.stm) that looked at the bacteria that colonise our own bodies*. These organisms have their good and bad sides: good in helping digest food and liberate vitamins, bad in causing some diseases. Overall, however, bacteria do far more good than evil.
[A kilogram in the gut, 10g in the nose, 20g in mouth and throat and 20g in the vagina, 200g on the skin – according to New Scientist.]
Humans, like the other UK wildlife, are complex groups of organisms. Yes, we are composed, or play host to, many different species – let me elaborate.

Young children especially pick up many types of wildlife when they start school – head lice, fleas and gut worms. Why else do the chemist shops sell medications to treat such infestations? You’ve seen dogs rubbing their bottoms on the ground to alleviate some of the effects of worms exiting the anus to lay their eggs around it … well I’ve seen human children doing similar – scratching, and so picking up the eggs to transfer to their mouths, friends or door handles! (http://www.patient.co.uk/health/Threadworms.htm)

One web site described head lice as ‘a very common problem in the UK, especially among school children’. So it is hardly surprising that our hedgehogs, deer and badgers have lice and ticks attacking them. Indeed when, in summer, I’ve been in the forest watching wildlife I too have acquired some of these beauties. In this area ticks can carry Lyme disease, so understanding its symptoms is important.

At one time otter researchers looked for tapeworm signs in droppings to distinguish one animal from another. Many fish are infected with lice on their surface and myriads of thin worms in their body cavity. Leeches are common in our local rivers and the huge ‘medicinal’ leech is said to occur in both the New Forest and Lake District. Any visitor to tropical rainforests are sure to encounter land leeches by the thousand.

You can often spot parasites on the bodies of early year bumblebees. The small shiny black ticks are sucking the blood from the host insects. If you spot an exhausted bee you can see the parasites moving around quite clearly.

© David Beeson: Lady Orchid

© David Beeson: Lady Orchid

And human cells are also individually affected by invading organisms: the mitochondria, vital to the cell’s survival, are invading bacteria that live out their lives permanently in animal and plant cells. The green chloroplasts of plant cells are similarly a bacterial parasite. Most surprising of all is that human evolution has mainly been driven by parasitic viruses that hide their own DNA in human chromosomes – only later to be broken up by human cell replication to form some of the new ‘human’ genes which drive evolution.
Enough is enough, so we’ll not enter into sexually transmitted wildlife or athlete’s foot fungus! But do take note of parasites and other odd creatures when you encounter them in the wild.

Garden Orchids

In the autumn of 2005 we seeded several species of French orchids into our Summer Meadow. Now we suspect the first plant, arriving from that seed, may flower this year; it could be the first flowering of a ‘wild’ lady orchid in Hampshire.
But recognising orchids ‘in the green’ [i.e. only in leaf] is difficult and our orchid could be something else altogether. It could also be eaten out by slugs, as happened last year.

But there are orchids plants in abundance this year around the garden and some other unrecognised leaves (monkey orchid?) around too as well as the familiar pyramidals.

The potted spotted orchids, and their allies, are now just showing but semi-wild marsh, twayblade and lady’s slipper orchids are slow to move and are still hidden underground.

So wildlife is everywhere – even on and in you!
Enjoy the spring – but watch out for parasites!

David is an ex-lecturer in Environmental / Biological Sciences.
He has written for most of the UK gardening magazines, including the RHS.
Forest Edge’s garden has been widely covered in magazines and has been featured in a BBC’s Gardeners’ World special.
He also maintains a blog at https://nwhwildlife.org/