Formby Red Squirrels

As it’s Red Squirrel Awareness Week, it struck me that now would be a very appropriate time to talk about one of my favourite places to visit further afield, especially during the Autumn and Winter months – National Trust Formby. It’s become such a favourite place to visit that at least one or two mornings spent in the reserve watching and photographing the resident Red Squirrels has now become a firm tradition over the Christmas and New Year holidays!

The reserve consists of pine woods leading out onto the beach. It’s a very special place because it’s one of the few spots in the North West where Red Squirrels can still be found. The Red Squirrel is the UK’s only native Squirrel species. They were widespread across most of the country until the 1870’s – when the non-native Grey Squirrel was introduced from America. Quickly, the larger Grey Squirrel started to out-compete the Red Squirrel for both food and habitat. And with them, they brought the Squirrelpox Virus, which they have developed immunity to but which is lethal to Red Squirrels.

Red Squirrels are very susceptible to environmental changes – if they feel stressed, they will not breed. And of course, they struggled too due to the ever present reduction of available territory as woodlands are lost to development. These factors combined mean that Red Squirrel numbers in the UK have fallen from an estimated 3.5 million at their peak, to just 160,000 individuals now – with as few of 15,000 of these being in England.

So Formby’s Red Squirrels are incredibly precious. In 2007 tragedy struck the reserve when there was a bad outbreak of Squirrelpox immediately followed by an unseasonably harsh Winter – the National Trust estimated that these two events combined led to the loss of 85% of the Red Squirrel population at Formby. It’s recovering now, and although numbers are still not back to their pre-Squirrelpox numbers there are still plenty to see, especially if you visit the reserve at the right time of day. There is still the odd isolated case of Squirrelpox on the reserve, and for that reason Grey Squirrels are strictly controlled in and around the reserve.

The squirrels are most active in the early mornings and evenings, so during the Winter months when I visit the most often I time my visit to arrive when the reserve opens. Not only does this give you a greater chance at getting a parking space (the reserve is incredibly popular and the car park is often full by mid-morning) but it also coincides nicely with the rangers feeding the squirrels, so there are always lots out and about seeking breakfast. During the middle of the day the squirrels retreat into the trees and their dreys – if you want to see them there’s no chance of a lie in, the earlier really is the better.

There’s a network of paths around the reserve, with the body of the woodlands behind fencing to allow the squirrels to remain undisturbed by people and dogs. Squirrels being squirrels though they pay no mind to the fences and frequently venture close to or onto the paths – a zoo-like experience this is not. Being woodland the light levels are quite low, but on a crisp and bright Winter’s day the light is good enough for photography.

In Winter you’d be forgiven for thinking that Red Squirrels have been misnamed – they grow a thick Winter coat and the colour of this can vary enormously, from red to grey and every shade in between. They also grow their distinctive ear tufts which moult during the Summer and grow back during the Winter.

The squirrels do look strikingly different in the Summer, they’ve lost their ear tufts and their lighter Summer coats are a really vivid shade of orange. I’ve found there are fewer to be seen during the Summer months though, as with the longer days by the time the reserve opens they’ve mostly retreated into the trees.

After a couple of hours exploring the reserve I tend to leave in late-morning, as the reserve gets busier and the squirrels head for the treetops. It really is a wonderful place to visit.

Badger Watching

Stumbling across an uneven, tussocky field after dark, clutching my camera and a bean bag leaving no spare hands for a torch is not my usual way to spend a Wednesday evening, but this was not a normal Wednesday. I’d finally seen an animal that I’d wanted to for the longest time – the badger.

I’d only ever seen a badger once before, lying lifeless by the side of a very busy dual carriageway. They aren’t very common in my neck of the woods – it’s massively overdeveloped and also our soil is distinctly clay-like, prone to holding water and not, I’d imagine, easy to excavate into smug, dry tunnels. I don’t blame the badgers for steering clear.

As a result I’d always been curious about these nocturnal creatures with their black and white mint humbug faces. I realised that I didn’t even know how big a badger was. The size of a cat? A dog? I imagined them emerging in the wee small hours well after dark, a glimpse of those white stripes and a dark silhouette being the best sighting a person could hope for of this mysterious animal.

So when I was offered the chance to spend an evening at an active badger sett, I leapt at the chance. Better still I learned that badgers usually emerge a while before dusk, giving me the chance to take some pictures. Which is why I found myself en route to the Peak District, having taken the afternoon off work. Driving through the fabulously named village of Sparrowpit, I tried not to get my hopes up too much. Nature is unpredictable, and there was no guarantee that the badgers would actually show themselves. I’ve lost count of the number of hours that I’ve spent sitting in the garden with my camera waiting for my usually regular as clockwork visitors to arrive, only for them to appear is if from nowhere the minute I’ve given up and gone back inside. It’s almost equal to the amount of times I’ve tried to photograph a new species and only managed to grab a blurry picture of a rapidly retreating animal rear end.

Walking towards the sett, my companion pointed out the badger pathways that were crisscrossing the field. I’d have mistaken these for human trails, but the grass was compressed evenly – a trademark pointer to badger, rather than human or fox activity as it shows where it’s low slung undercarriage has passed over.

As we got closer, we fell into silence. Living a primarily underground existence, badgers don’t see too well (they don’t need to), but their sense of hearing is excellent. As we settled down downwind of the sett – their sense of smell is excellent too – I tried to get comfortable, anticipating a long wait ahead. Predictably, at that moment the heavens opened – not for rain, but hail! After so many weeks of unrelenting heat it was actually nice to be outside in the cool evening air, hearing the (thankfully) miniature hailstones bouncing off my hood. The hail passed over within minutes, just as the opening act appeared – this cheeky rabbit who seemed completely unperturbed by our presence.

I managed to get a few shots before the rabbit suddenly seemed to go onto the alert. Glancing past it, I understood why. A badger had emerged and was snuffling around the ground outside the sett. It was still very light at this point – being about 6.30 in the evening, giving me the chance to get a few shots. Then, just for a second, the sun poked through the clouds giving me the chance to get this shot which I am really pleased with.

The badger continued to snuffle around the base of the bracken, until the cows that were further across the field wandered closer to us to graze. The cows had kept an eye on us since we’d entered the field, and us on them. Though they sounded really close to us, they were a good 50m away.

The badger though, retreated to the sett and resolutely refused to come back up when they were within earshot. I’d been advised to bring a book along in case of boredom while waiting, but there was little chance of that. There was the odd light shower of cooling rain, and a constant buzz as a steady stream of bumblebees motored purposefully overhead. Remarkably, there seemed to be a bumblebee nest in the bracken to one side of us, we were most definitely on a flight path back to the nest. I was amazed by this – badgers are well known for digging up and devouring bumblebee nests – bees, wax and all, so it’s astonishing that one was thriving so close to a sett.

Gradually the cows moved away and first the rabbit, then the badger re-emerged. There was one moment when the badger seemed to look straight down my camera lens, a pose that would have made a wonderful photo, but somehow I couldn’t bring myself to press the shutter and break the spell. I must learn not to be so hesitant!

Then, as dusk became darkness proper, two smaller badgers came out from the sett entrance – this year’s cubs! After enjoying a noisy drink they started snuffling around in the bracken on either side of us. By this time, sadly, it was too dark to be able to take any pictures – but the sight of a small nose emerging from the bracken a mere metre away from me was incredible, and a moment I will never forget.

While the cubs busied themselves in the undergrowth we took the opportunity to slip away. I couldn’t stop smiling. I’m hoping to be able to return to the sett next spring when there’s the chance of small cubs and longer hours of daylight. If you ever get the chance to visit a sett, I’d highly recommend it.

A Hard Time for Honeybees – and our Wild Bees too

For the first time since we began beekeeping 8 years ago, our Honeybees are showing signs of starvation. At the beginning of July we noticed that they’d begun removing the wax cappings from their Winter honey stores and begun to eat them. Each frame we removed during inspections saw lines of hungry bees head first in the cells, totally ignoring our presence as they ate.

Kersal Vale Honeybees, 2015

Normally at this time of year they’d be busy foraging for pollen and nectar, but they seem to have realised that there’s just not enough about. The effect can be seen on other invertebrates too – each time we open a hive flocks of Bumblebees and Wasps have started appearing too, attracted by the sweet scent of the honey within. Wasps do appear around beehives and try to rob them of honey, but normally this will only happen in early Autumn when flowering plants naturally begin to die back. Bumblebees are normally far too busy with their own bee business to bother beehives, but this year with the lack of food around it seems the smell must be irresistible.

Kersal Vale Honeybee, 2015

Our bees are sited on a large allotment site, where as you can imagine there’s normally a consistent food supply throughout the bee season. The allotmenteers grow a wide variety of plants and so at any point during the season there’s generally something in bloom – but it just doesn’t seem to be enough this year. The flowers seem to be dying back incredibly quickly in the heat and the lack of rain means plants in general are struggling. The apiary itself backs onto the River Irwell, the banks of which at this time of year are normally thick with Himalayan Balsam. This is an invasive species which needs careful management if it isn’t to become a real problem – it spreads like wildfire and outcompetes many native species – but has become an important and reliable food source for insects. It has very shallow roots though, so was an early casualty of the drought. The riverbanks are empty this year.

This means we’re in the unusual position of needing to supplement our bees’ food during the height of Summer. We’ve a few options to use – adding wet supers, frames from which the bulk of the honey has been extracted but which always have some remaining deep in the cells. We’ve also got a couple of buckets of honey which has slightly too high a water content to bottle, so they can have that too. And finally we can feed them with sugar solution, though this is the last option as being essentially pure sugar it isn’t as nutritionally balanced as honey.

Other than feeding we are leaving the bees alone as much as possible – we don’t want to put any unnecessary stress on the colonies. The bees seem to have adopted a low stress, low energy approach to life too, only doing what’s absolutely necessary. For example, there hasn’t been any attempt to swarm like there normally would be when the hot weather began.

Kersal Vale Honeybee covered in Himalayan Balsam pollen, offering her hivemates a taste of the nectar she’s gathered to encourage them to visit the source

So an odd Summer in beekeeping as in the rest of the natural world. And another odd feature to mention – this phenomenon seems to be incredibly localised. Beekeepers in our area are reporting similar issues to ours, but in other parts of the country bees are absolutely booming.

All this being said, I’m not too worried about our honeybees. My main worry is that what this signifies for our local native bees. Our colonies of honeybees will be fine, hopefully – we can feed them. The Solitary and Bumblebees in the area are not so lucky, and not long after noticing what was happening with the honeybees, I started to see problems with them too. We seem to be seeing a much shortened season for them compared to normal – last year I had Leafcutter Bees flying in the garden until September. This year, they emerged at the same point in the Summer but are already gone. At NQ Growboxes, there are far fewer bees than at this point last year. The common issue in all these places is the scorching temperatures and lack of food sources available for the bees.

It remains to be seen what effect this will have had on the local populations of wild bees. I’m hoping that, although the season is shortened this year, they will have had time to complete the breeding cycle. As always with these things though, only time will tell.

A Day at the Seaside

A conversation with a fellow bee fan on Twitter led us to Ainsdale Beach on the hot and sunny Easter weekend.  Ainsdale Beach is part of the Sefton Dunes NNR (National Nature Reserve) and is designated as a Special Area of Conservation – not just due to the wildlife found there but also due to the fact that is is part of the UK’s fastest-eroding section of coast.

It is a shifting dune system and therefore needs to be carefully managed as the form and shape of the dunes constantly changes.  There are large areas of the dune system which flood seasonally and provide a habitat for many coastal species.  It is host to a number of uncommon and rare species such as Natterjack Toads and Sand Lizards as well as the smaller creatures that I had come to see.

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I was looking for the Vernal (or Spring) Colletes, a fairly uncommon bee that is only found in the UK at a few sites on the North West Coast and North Wales.

The Vernal Colletes nests within the sand dunes, using the hollowed out surfaces on the side of the slacks caused by erosion.  South facing slopes are preferred for maximum sun exposure to keep the nesting area as warm as possible.

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The bees form large nesting aggregationss, containing thousands of nest tunnels and bees.  Although Vernal Colletes are a species of Solitary Bee, they could perhaps be described as ‘Semi-Social’ as although they nest individually the tunnels are formed in close proximity to others.

As we approached the nesting area the hum caused by the buzzing of flying bees was incredible.  Hundreds of males were flying just above ground level in search of females.  Occasionally one would dive-bomb another male in a case of mistaken identity, at which point a small scuffle would ensue until the mistake was realised!

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The females mostly hid within their nest tunnels, waiting until the coast seemed clear before emerging.  I spotted a few peering out, the slightest movement meant that they bobbed straight back down again so they were quite a challenge to photograph!

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I staked out one nest tunnel for a while, and only once the female within was happy that I was not a male bee did she finally emerge!

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Any female spotted by males out in the open was quickly mobbed, though we did manage to spot a brave few digging new nest tunnels.

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There was only a small population of Vernal Colletes at this site a generation ago, but a few changes to the management of the dunes has meant that the population has increased dramatically over the past few years.  Parts of the dune system have been fenced off to protect the Natterjack Toad breeding pools, which means that Vernal Colletes nesting on the steep poolsides were protected from disturbance and damage caused by footfall, which they are particularly susceptible to.  Secondly, Salix repens (or Creeping Willow) which is the Vernal Colletes exclusive food source was encouraged which in turn has meant a larger population of bees is able to be supported.

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After a couple of hours taking pictures it was time to head for home.  We walked back to the car park through the dune system, seeing many more nesting aggregations en route.  We also spotted several of these pretty Northern Dune Tiger Beetles scurrying through the sand.

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It was only when we reached the very top of the dunes and were immediately sand blasted by the wind that I realised how sheltered the dune slacks are – where we’d been had been hot and completely still – and so why they make such a great habitat for so many creatures.