Monday, 30 August 2021

Beavers and Pine Martens back in Wales

Despite all the gloomy news about climate change, pollution and habitat destruction, there are some exciting things happening in the UK for wildlife. A number of species once extinct or on the brink of extinction in the UK are being reintroduced across the country by organisations such as the Vincent Wildlife Trust.

I was lucky enough to spend some time in Wales recently, and was delighted to be able to observe European beavers for the first time in my life. Tragically, beavers had been extinct in Britain since the 1500s. They were hunted not only for their meat and fur but also for their scent glands, which were used in the production of vanilla frangrance and flavourings. However, various reintroduction projects across the country in the last few years have been successful, and beavers can now be found in certain locations in Scotland, Devon, Wales, Kent, Essex and the Forest of Dean. 

The reintroduction of this charismatic mammal is positive not only for the beavers but also for a whole host of other species, as they act as what is called a 'keystone species'. This means that they are vitally important for a healthy ecosystem. Their busy engineering work, such as building dams, creating new water courses and coppicing riverside trees makes important changes to the wetland. These can also benefit us, as the chance of flooding is reduced.

I could see clear evidence of a number of dams that the beavers had been working on, creating new pools and water channels, and their lodge was just about visible. A lodge is the name for a beaver's home. They contain entrances under water that lead to systems of dry burrows above water. They are made of sticks, mud and leaves and their engineering is very impressive. Beavers constantly work on their lodge, making improvements and patching up holes with mud. 

Beavers are largely nocturnal animals, so I didn't expect to have the chance to photograph them in daylight. However, I saw the first beaver appearing at around 8pm, just before the sunlight disappeared. I felt very privileged to be watching such a rare and interesting animal. In the water, they seem elegant and fast, but on land they are rather like giant, lumbering guinea pigs! 


Beavers can hold their breath for as long as 15 minutes, so sometimes I thought I had lost one and then up it popped!

Beavers are monogamous and stay together for many years. However, they only have one litter of kits each year. The average beaver family consists of 3 kits. Unfortunately, I only saw evidence of one kit in this family. Here you can see him swimming away from his lodge. 


Beavers are strict vegetarians and feed on the roots, leaves and branches of plants and trees along the river bank. They eat roughly a fifth of their body weight every day.





Here's hoping that beavers will now start to thrive and spread across the country, and be a familiar sight to us all once more.


Another British mammal that has been clinging on only in the north of England and Scotland is the pine marten. A combination of hunting and habitat loss led to their demise. However, in 2015, the Vincent Wildlife Trust relocated 50 Scottish pine martens to mid-Wales and, very recently, 18 pine martens were reintroduced to the Forest of Dean.  It is hoped that this reintroduction will also help to control the grey squirrel population which, in turn, would help red squirrels to make a comeback.


I used my trail camera during my trip to Wales to see whether I could find any evidence of these pine martens. After several failed attempts, I was delighted to capture some footage. Most of it was not very clear due to torrential rain, but here is a little flavour of the better bits:




The relocation project in Wales has been a huge success, and there has been evidence of breeding every year since their release.


If you would like to learn more about the reintroduction of the pine marten, have a look at the Vincent Wildlife Trust website. www.vwt.org.uk










Monday, 29 March 2021

Cleaning up my Act

In my last blog post, I talked about how I had been creating my own environmentally-friendly oil paints to clean up my art. 

Although I found these oil paints wonderful to work with and I loved their effect on a canvas of raw, unprimed linen, it became apparent that unprimed linen does not react well over time to contact with oil-based paints. It was also proving expensive to purchase Eco Solve (a non toxic and environmentally-safe solvent) which is only available in small quantities at quite a high price. 

At first, I was rather dispondent, as there did not seem to be any alternative that would continue to be eco-friendly. I could prime the linen to protect it, but again, this was another product to buy and there seemed to be only one environmentally-friendly primer out there.

I was delighted then, when Natural Earth Paint released their new environmentally-friendly acrylic medium. Knowing 'acrylic' to be a type of plastic, I wondered at first how this could be eco. However, it appears to be made entirely from plant-based materials and is non-toxic. You can read more about it here: Natural Acrylic Medium - 16 oz. - Natural Earth Paint



Using this new acrylic medium with my natural earth pigments, I can create homemade environmentally-friendly paints which only need water to be thinned and cleaned. This makes my whole painting process much less messy. I am delighted with the results. I can now paint confidently on raw, unprimed linen.

Here is an example of a recent painting using these new paints:



I have also been continuing to develop my driftwood "frames". I am using locally collected driftwood from Sussex beaches and sawing them in half so that they have a flat surface with which to stick to the picture. I often need to cut the pieces to size to make them fit, but I like to keep them looking as natural as possible, even if it means certain pieces sticking out asymmetrically.



The linen itself is backed on upcycled MDF and natural twine is used to hang the picture on the wall.






Thursday, 29 October 2020

Art that doesn't cost the Earth

 As mentioned in one of my previous posts, I have been experimenting with various products in order to make my art environmentally-friendly. 

I am now using Natural Coloured Earth Pigments from Celtic Sustainables and mixing them with walnut oil to create my own eco oil paints. 




I learnt that it is necessary to use glass and a muller to properly mix the paints. Here you can see that I have poured out some of the brown pigment on to a sheet of glass and I am adding some of the walnut oil.



At first, it is necessary to use a palette knife to mix the powder and oil together.


I then use a glass muller to properly grind the pigment into the oil.


    

Once I am happy with the consistency of the paint, I scoop it into a jam jar for storage.



Instead of using the usual cotton canvases, I have decided to opt instead for linen which is more sustainable. 


So far, I have painted a few mini eco canvases on linen and have found it a lovely material to work with. To prepare the canvas for painting, it is necessary to cover it in a layer of clear gesso so that that the paint does not damage the linen fibres. Luckily, naturalearthpaint.com make an eco-friendly gesso, which I have found very effective. 


I used Eco Solve to thin my paint and clean my brushes between colours. However, I have recently discovered that it is possible to simply use more of the walnut oil to thin the paint and just use a different brush for each colour, removing the need to rinse brushes between colours. To wash my brushes after finishing a painting session, I use The Masters Artist Soap, which is also environmentally-friendly.



I have used driftwood to frame my eco paintings and I attach the pieces using environmentally-friendly glue. I prefer to leave the picture without any glass in front of it.


Next, I am going to experiment with painting directly on to wood.

Thursday, 1 October 2020

Dorset Otters

This summer, I was lucky enough to have my first close encounter in England with the elusive otter. Their numbers were in huge decline in the 60s and 70s due to habitat loss, pesticide use and persecution. Since the 90s, there has been a huge effort to improve the health of the UK's rivers and, finally, in the last 10 years, this has paid off. Otters are once again found in every county in England, something which hasn't been the case for decades.

During a week away in Dorset, I spent some time walking along the River Stour, looking for signs of otters. I didn't find any footprints on the river banks but did see evidence of spraint (otter poo) on various logs and rocks, so I knew they were around. I spent two mornings from dawn until about 11am walking up and down the stretch of river where I had seen spraint, looking for movement or large ripples. I saw herons, kingfishers and swans, as well as lots of other lovely birds, but spotting an otter was tricky!



It was a beautiful stretch of river and so peaceful at dawn. Once other people started to arrive, including dog walkers and joggers, I thought my chances of seeing an otter were very slim. However, luck was with me on the first morning as I spotted a mother and three cubs swimming together down the river. They were very fast moving and I had to almost run along the riverbank to keep up with them. Every now and then they would stop to fish or play and I would try to capture some photos. They were completely unbothered by my presence and seemed used to noisy dogs and people. I followed them for a long time and had some lovely views, but struggled to get any good photos. 




On the second day, it wasn't until 10am that I saw any sign of the otters. This time, I heard them before seeing them. They were squeaking away at each other and I only caught sight of the mother and two cubs. As I waited by an old tree that created a lagoon with its long, dangling branches, one of the cubs (quite a mature cub) popped up right in front of me within this patch of calm water and rolled around on its back, looking up at me full of curiosity. It was a magical moment that I will never forget and I was lucky enough to capture a shot. 

I would have loved to spend more time in Dorset watching these otters but, sadly, I had to return home to my county of  West Sussex. I hope to go back next spring.

Sunday, 9 August 2020

Fox Family

During lockdown, I was lucky enough to have a magical experience with foxes. I often look for fox dens and badger setts when I'm out walking in the woods and, upon finding a likely candidate, I put my trail camera on a nearby tree and come back the next morning to see what has been captured. I collect my trail camera and put the memory card in my laptop full of excitement. More often than not, I am met with huge disappointment!

However, you get lucky when you least expect it! One night, I put my trail camera on a tree near a badger sett. I suspected it was a disused badger sett so wasn't very hopeful. Imagine my delight when I saw this footage:


At last, I had found a fox den! I went back to the same area the next evening and hid in my pop-up camo hide. That first evening I was rewarded with a wonderful experience as I saw the cubs suckling from their mother. They were not in the least bit bothered by my presence. As well as taking some photos, I also took a quick phone video to capture the moment:


The poor vixen could barely stand with all these hungry mouths jabbing at her!

In this picture you can see she has a total of 5 cubs. Sadly, after the first week, I only saw 4 cubs. Mortality among fox cubs is, unfortunately, very high. 
I returned each time I had a free evening and enjoyed watching the cubs grow up. I attempted to get different perspectives by lying in the grass and hiding among the brambles (not the most comfortable experience ever!) 

These foxes were very much rural foxes and looked in excellent condition. Urban foxes are much less timid and will often scavenge from bins. Foxes are not fussy eaters at all and will eat any small mammals and birds as well as frogs and berries. They will even eat worms if they have to! The main prey that I saw this mother bringing to her cubs was rabbit. It is common for both the vixen (female) and the dog (male) to look after the young but I never saw any sign of the male.


It was delightful to watch the cubs play-fight and explore. You could see that every little adventure was all part of their learning. The cubs had very distinct personalities. One was very shy and would run back into the den at the slightest sound. Another would wander very far from the den to explore, and another was always wanting to jump on his siblings!


The cubs grew up very quickly and before long, there was no sign of them at the den. Fox cubs are almost always born in the spring and by September/October time they are usually fully independent. Often they will go off and find their own territories, but, interestingly, some will stay behind and help their mother rear the following year's litter. I will certainly visit this den next spring to see whether it will be used again. 


You can see in this picture how the snout area gets much longer as the cub grows up, and the fur becomes a more reddish colour. This no longer looks like a cub, but more like a young adult. 

To see more photos of this fox family, take a look at my main website, Instagram and Facebook. 

Trail cameras are truly fantastic. You never know what you might capture. They are not as expensive as you might think - why not try one in your garden and find out who visits it at night?! 

Feel free to let me know what you discover!





Thursday, 28 May 2020

The progress of the blue tit family

Earlier in the year I showed you how we made a camera nest box. Luckily, some blue tits decided to nest in it and we have been closely watching their progress.

They had several attempts at building the nest. We would look at the camera one day and see it full of nesting material and then the next day it would be empty again! We thought they would never finish their nest! 

However, they made a beautiful nest in the end and the female laid one egg a day for 10 days. 10 eggs is a huge number and we suspected that not all would hatch.





Once all ten eggs were laid, she began incubating them. They were very dedicated parents, with the male regularly coming to feed the female as she kept the eggs warm. Here she is incubating:

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On 3rd May, the eggs began to hatch. They did not all hatch at once, but, over a period of 2 days, 6 of the eggs hatched. The babies were tiny, pink, featherless and blind. 
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 The parents have been regularly feeding the young with caterpillars from the nearby oak tree as well as food from our birdfeeder. Their rate of growth was incredible - they looked bigger every time we look at the camera! They very quickly developed tufty feathers.


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Sadly on 18th May, it became clear that 2 babies had not survived and the parents must have removed them from the nest. Only 4 hungry mouths remained and we were hoping that they would all make it to adulthood.

A few days later, we were then devastated to see that one of the remaining four had also died and was still in the nest as it was now too heavy for the parents to lift out.

Eventually on 24th May, three of the babies fledged. However, they were not yet able to fly and were just hopping around on the ground. One fell prey to a cat but I can happily say that the other 2 made it and can now fly.


Here they are visiting the bird feeder. You can see that they are still asking the parents for food but can also feed themselves now - they are doing well! The babies still have yellow faces, unlike the adults whose faces are white.



Monday, 13 April 2020

Build your own Bat Box



An often overlooked animal that might visit our gardens is the bat. In the UK we have 18 species of bat. Sadly, many of these species are in decline.

One thing you can do to help is to build a bat box.

There are several different types of bat box. Some are designed for different species of bat and some are specific maternity boxes.

I decided to follow the instructions at the bottom of this Bat Conservation Trust information pack to build a couple of Kent bat boxes. This is a popular and successful design. Why don't you give it a try?

The most common and most likely to use these boxes in my garden will be the Common (45kHz) Pipistrelle and the Soprano (55kHz) Pipistrelle.

Here are some photos of me making my bat boxes. I am no DIY expert and I was able to manage it, so anyone can!

It is very important that the wood you use is 'untreated'. You can find this easily in a hardware/DIY shop.

 It is important to etch grooves into the wood for the bats to cling on to. I just used the blade of a power saw very lightly.


 Each entrance hole should be no more than 15-20mm wide. Bats like to be cosy! Just as in a bird box, the size of the entrance determines which species will decide to utilise it.


Make sure you put a lid securely on top!


To increase the lifespan of the box and to make it a little cosier for the bats, I added an outer coating of leftover pond-liner from our pond. This makes the box more waterproof!



Ideally the bat box should be placed facing South, but this was not possible on our house. It is important to make sure that they are not placed near artificial lights that might be on at night (e.g. street lights) as this confuses/disturbs them. We have placed it facing East. We will see whether it gets used!