Monday, 20 April 2015

Getting my vote this year…

Gemma Walker, Wildlife and Community Officer

I am often asked what my favourite animal is. I usually respond by saying there are too many fantastic creatures living in Norfolk to choose from, not wanting to show favouritism to any particular species.

But, recently the Urban Birder, David Lindo, really got me thinking when I took part in a survey he had launched to vote for Britain’s national bird. As I scrolled through the ten nominees I was torn as to which bird to pick. Should I choose the robin, that chirpy bird that often keeps me company whilst I am digging in the garden? How about the wren? For a little bird they have such a strong, vibrant song. Or the kingfisher, always a treat to see when I am out walking next to a river, broad or dyke. No, there could only be one bird for me, only one bird that would get my vote: the barn owl.

Barn owl, photo by Nick Appleton
Often as I travel home from work I am lucky enough to catch a glimpse of this remarkable, ghost-like bird as it quarters a field looking for a small mammal or two. A favourite past time of mine as I drive back home in the dark is to spot a barn owl on top of a road sign; it’s amazing how many barn owls seem to make use of these artificial perches. No matter how many times I see this beautiful, elegant, white and brown bird it always brings a smile to my face and I realise how lucky I am to live in a county that seems to have such a good population.

Brown hare, photo by Mark Ollett
With my vote cast for my favourite bird, I felt inspired to pick my favourite mammal. People who know me would probably guess that I would vote for the grey seal as I spend many winter hours wardening a colony, but actually they would be wrong. There has been one mammal that has captured my imagination and admiration for many years. In particular I love the folklore that surrounds this magical, mystical creature. In times gone by it was thought that witches had the power to turn in to this animal to escape their enemies, and it was regarded as an animal sacred to Aphrodite and Eros, with people giving this creature as a gift of love. But, it is probably best known for its apparent mad behaviour in March, when it can be seen leaping and bounding in arable fields across Norfolk. Brown hares would definitely get my vote.

Common frog, photo by Brian Beckett
If I am allowed to be greedy I would like to cast my vote for one more species, and label them along with the barn owl and brown hare as my favourite Norfolk animals. At Norfolk Wildlife Trust I often get phone calls from people concerned about this animal, it is not only my heart it has captured. You may also know of people in villages across Norfolk that volunteer their time to help hundreds of these animals cross the road to their breeding ponds. The common frog would secure my final vote. To me it is an indicator of spring, when they appear in my pond in March. It always feels like you are welcoming back an old friend and to watch the development of frogspawn to tadpole to froglet is simply amazing. A natural wonder that every child should have a chance to experience.

If you were asked what do barn owls, brown hares and common frogs have in common, what would you say? Apart from being my favourite animals in Norfolk and getting my vote they are also animals that rely on a network of wildlife corridors or wildlife stepping stones which will allow them to travel safely to breeding sites, find food and shelter.

Common frogs may breed in your pond but they probably hibernate in a totally different area, and in the summer will move away from the pond to find food and shelter. So common frogs  need a safe corridor or set of stepping stones which will allow them to travel without risk of predation or being killed by cars. We sometimes get phone calls at Norfolk Wildlife Trust from people concerned that their frogs have not returned to their garden pond, one of the reasons for this may be that one of their wildlife corridors has been blocked (by a new road or a fence) or destroyed (through the building of a housing development), and so the route to a garden they usually breed in may have been lost.

Barn owls and brown hares also depend on a set of corridors and stepping stones to travel safely from one place to another and unfortunately seeing a dead hare or owl on a road is not an unusual sight. If you are lucky enough to see a barn owl you may see it flying  backwards and forwards quartering an area looking for food. Grass verges, wide field margins and hedgerows are very important wildlife corridors for barn owls as they provide habitat for small mammals, the main food source for barn owls.

Brown hares do not have burrows like rabbits, even their young are born above ground. If a predator is nearby they stay perfectly still, not moving, until the last minute. Then when no other options remains they run extremely fast, zigzagging as they go, trying to outrun their predators. A landscape consisting of a variety of different wildlife corridors, such as field margins and hedgerows allows the brown hare room to escape and evade predators.

As well as relying on a network of wildlife corridors within the landscape these three species need our help. Barn owl numbers have fallen by more than half since 1932. This decline is due to a fall in the number of nest sites as barns and derelict farm buildings are being converted into homes, plus a decline in areas of rough grassland hunting grounds.

 One way everyone in Norfolk can help in the conservation of these three species is to share your barn owl, brown hare and common frog sightings with Norfolk Wildlife Trust. Recording wildlife is an easy way to get involved in wildlife conservation. It helps Norfolk Wildlife Trust to understand an animal’s distribution across the county, and identify any areas particularly important or lacking in these species. We also pass the records on to Norfolk Biodiversity Information Service, the Local Record Centre holding information on species,habitats and protected sites for the whole of Norfolk.

The survey forms part of a community project run by Norfolk Wildlife Trust called Delivering Living Landscapes, which is working to engage people with their landscape and its wildlife. It is supported by the Heritage Lottery Fund, Essex & Suffolk Water, John Jarrold Trust and Broads Authority.

Sightings can be submitted easily online at NWT’s website, where you will also be able to see a distribution map of all the sightings submitted so far.

You can also phone your wildlife sighting to Norfolk Wildlife Trust’s Wildlife Information Service on 01603 598 333 or pick up a recording card from one of the Norfolk Wildlife Trust’s visitor centres.

These may be my favourite species but I also hope they are special to you too. Sharing your wildlife sightings of brown hares, barn owls and common frogs will help Norfolk Wildlife Trust and Norfolk Biodiversity Information Service build up a vital picture of where these species are in Norfolk.

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