PICTURES: Cheeky dormouse dances up Cornwall ranger’s back

An experienced National Trust ranger was left reeling after a rare hazel dormouse danced up his back.

James Robbins, a ranger on the conservation charity’s Cotehele Estate, Cornwall, was checking the 60 dormouse nest boxes in a wooded valley on the estate earlier this month.

It was the first time the James, whose image of a snoring dormouse was chosen as one of the Guardian’s pictures of the year last Christmas, had checked the boxes this year.

Dormouse at Cotehele SPRING 2017 James Robbins, NT 2

National Trust ranger James Robbins was left reeling after a dormouse jumped out of a nest box at Cotehele, Cornwall, and scampered up his back. It was near the place where ranger James last year snapped the dozing dormouse that captured newspaper readers’ hearts. CREDIT: James Robbins/National Trust

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Rare ‘Ratty’ revival on England’s highest freshwater lake

Rare water voles are flourishing against the odds in England’s highest freshwater lake following a reintroduction programme by the National Trust last summer.

More than a hundred water voles, which were the inspiration for Wind in the Willows’ Ratty, were released onto streams around Malham Tarn in the Yorkshire Dales in August last year. It was the first time water voles had been seen on the lake in 50 years.

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A water vole at Malham Tarn, Yorkshire Dales. CREDIT: North News & Pictures Ltd/National Trust Images

And, in an adventure worthy of Ratty, Mole and Toad from the Kenneth Grahame classic, the water voles are spreading across the lake – in ways that National Trust rangers could never have dreamed.

Survey work has shown that the water voles – which are the UK’s fastest declining land mammal – have spread up to a kilometre from the original release site. Almost a year on from the original release, rangers will be reintroducing 100 new water voles to Malham Tarn.

Roisin Black, National Trust ranger at Malham Tarn, said: “With a mild, wet winter, we were worried that the water levels around the tarn may rise too high and flood the burrows. But it turns out that the voles have spread out across one side of the tarn.”

One vole has even been caught on camera in a favourite haunt for one of the tarn’s otters – one of the predators that will occasionally target water voles.

“An opportunistic otter might go for a water vole, but generally the can live very happily side by side,” Roisin said. “The presence of the otter helps deter the mink – which are behind water voles’ shocking declines.”

A hundred new water voles will be released onto the fenland surrounding Malham Tarn over the course of this week (starting 29 May). The water voles, which have been specially bred by expert ecologists at Derek Gow Consultancy, will be released in sibling groups and breeding pairs.

The release will be staggered over seven days due to the different needs of the groups and pairs. The animals will spend three or four days in large cages, placed on the fringe of the tarn. On the fourth and fifth day the cage doors will be opened. Food placed just outside the cage entrances will encourage the voles to leave the cages and build burrows. After the seventh day the cages will be removed.

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Ranger Roisin Black at Malham Tarn. CREDIT: Anthony Chappel-Ross/National Trust Images

The reintroduction is part of a plan by the National Trust to restore wildlife in the Yorkshire Dales. The charity cares for 8,000 hectares of woodland, meadows and moor in the Dales – England’s second largest National Park.

The water voles are helping to restore Malham Tarn’s sensitive lowland fen fringe – one of fifty ‘priority’ habitats handpicked by government as in need of support. The National Trust aims to create 25,000 hectares of new ‘priority’ nature habitats by 2025.

Ranger Roisin Black added: “The water voles area already changing the look of the tarn-side streams. The banks used to be straight-sided, almost like canals.

“But by burrowing into the banks, the voles have created much more natural-looking streams with shady pools that should be really good for invertebrates and small fish.”

National Trust rangers will spend the coming months surveying water voles, looking for signs like the animals’ ‘litter’ (excrement), burrows and nibbled grass ends.

“It will let us estimate the number of water voles we have here at Malham Tarn,” Roisin added.

How do you reintroduce a water vole? Six questions with Malham Tarn ranger Roisin Black.

Early-born lamb due April 1 leaves Cornwall farmers feeling foolish

Shepherds on Britain’s most southerly farm were left feeling foolish after their first lamb of the year was born three weeks early.

Rona and Nevil Amiss, who farm the National Trust-owned Tregullas Farm on Cornwall’s Lizard Point, had been expecting their flock to start lambing on 1 April – April Fools’ Day.

But the couple’s plans were left in tatters when the first lamb was born on the farm last Tuesday, after a ram struggled into the ewe’s field last October.

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Farmers’ daughter Elsa Amiss, 18, with the first lamb born at Tregullas Farm, Cornwall – mainland Britain’s most southerly farm. CREDIT: Ben Birchall/PA Wire. For more pictures: Press Association (A ANIMALS Lambs)

Rona Amiss, tenant farmer at Tregullas, said: “Normally lambing begins on 1 April, but like all best laid plans it often doesn’t quite work out that way.

“Back in October one lively ram escaped and walked round the cliff path to the opposite end of the farm and got in with the ewe.”

The hardy Lleyn-cross lambs at Tregullas spend most of their lives outside and are fed entirely on grass or silage.

“It’s a sustainable way of farming that suits the mild climate of the Lizard Peninsula,” Rona said.

“If we calve and lamb in April as the grass is growing at its best we can match the needs of the livestock without having to resort to bought-in expensive feeds.”

Tregullas has won two National Trust Fine Farm Produce Awards for its lamb. Farmers Rona and Nevil Amiss, whose five children help out on the farm including 18-year-old daughter Elsa, have worked to improve the farm for rare wildlife such as the crow-like Cornish Chough.

Rona said: “Having a good rotation of sheep, cattle and arable around the farm means we are increasing the opportunities for wildlife to thrive. The jigsaw of habitats that this creates means a mix of food sources for our numerous birds, especially the iconic Cornish Chough.”

The National Trust acquired Tregullas Farm, which sits in the shadow of Lizard Point lighthouse, in the 1990s.

Lead ranger Justin Whitehouse added: “Tregullas is a flagship farm for the Trust, showing how farming with high conservation standards can be profitable and sustainable, producing quality local produce – and benefiting wildlife and people.”

Weekly Witter: Out of the strong came forth sweetness

Spring is a time of joy for all naturalists, leaf burst and blossom delighting all of us, not least the entomologist who has suffered a long and bleak winter with hardly a buzz or a flutter of wings. The search for the rare and spectacular is most definitely on and it’s not in praise of leaf or flower that I devote this blog. I’m celebrating a sweet and intoxicating liquor, a dark brown liquid that oozes, bubbles and even gurgles from trees. Sap-runs or flux as they are sometimes known, prove irresistible to insects and insect hunters alike.

There are many reasons why sap might spring from trees, bacterial disease, physical damage or the attentions of wood boring insects such as the chunky larvae of the goat moth which might spend five years developing on the frugal diet of solid wood. Whatever causes the sap to flow from the tree there are rich pickings for insects. Flies, beetles and wasps are all attracted to the sugary secretions. While some of the species such as red admirals and wasps are fairly ordinary, there’s a chance of finding more rare species per square inch than any other habitat I know.

The dark brown streaks on this oak trunk are a tell-tale sign of a productive sap-run.

The dark brown streaks on this oak trunk are a tell-tale sign of a productive sap-run.

The tree in the photograph was in a field at Maidenhead and Cookham Commons and is clearly in decline although the sap runs are a symptom rather than the cause. One of the first things I check for on such trees are the exit holes of the twin-spot wood-borer, a formerly rare beetle that has become much more common as a result of acute oak decline. These beetles, sometimes implicated in the spread of disease leave holes that are distinctive for being flattened on one side, much like a D. There was no sign at all of where this handsome beetle had been, indeed despite seeing hundreds of holes on scores of trees I’d never seen this species in over ten years of trying. Other species though were there in abundance.

Wasps were frequent, along with their bigger cousins the hornet. These, despite their fearsome reputation are luckily kind-tempered; praiseworthy when poring over the trunk with your nose an inch away from where they feed. Sap-beetles, fungus beetles and hoverflies all flocked to the sweet sap. The rare brown tree-ant, a real southern speciality was busy, scurrying across the trunk, drinking sap and seemingly attending hoverfly larvae that were immersed in the syrupy stream. Several hoverflies are known to breed exclusively in sap runs, some of these are tiny and rather dowdy but the inflated hoverfly is a much more robust beast. This inch long fly is a dapper black and orange affair and always a pleasure to see.

The inflated hoverfly, a distinctive sap-run specialist.

The inflated hoverfly, a distinctive sap-run specialist.

Red admiral butterflies had settled onto the trunk to feed occasionally flashing their wings to startle other insects attempting to muscle in. The smell of the sap was even tempting enough to lure a purple emperor away from its sylvan kingdom. After a good twenty minutes of inspecting the insect life on this once mighty tree I thought that the emperor would be the highlight. Just as I turned to walk away, another insect alighted at the foot of the tree, the wings creating an audible buzz as it did so. Its slim shape and spangled appearance gave it away as one of my most sought after species. Agrilus pannonicus, the oak jewel beetle, the twin-spot wood-borer (so good they named it thrice), a Holy Grail that serendipity (and sap) had seen fit to allow me to meet.

oak j Oak Jewel Beetle

Oak Jewel Beetle

  • Peter Brash is a wildlife and countryside advisor for the National Trust. He specialises in animal ecology; specifically birds, insects and bats. As well as the surveying of habitats, wildlife interpretation and engagement.
  • The Weekly Witter is a new regular Monday mouthpiece for our many specialists to talk about what’s on their minds at the moment.