So long and thanks for all the proverbial fish, Part One

Having been visited by my parents, packed up my belongings in Dorset, finished my job, had a mad couple of days getting my car fixed, and finally moved house, I have finally got to the end of a very hectic couple of weeks. Despite being so busy, I have still managed to get out and about to see some wildlife!

w/c 5th October 2015

A great start to week at the Chesil Beach Centre. Despite getting confused by Sophie’s directions to the Starry Smooth-Hound shark (Mustelus asterias) as I thought she meant the other bridge, I had a lovely wander looking at crabs and picking up litter. I also spotted my first Brent Geese (Branta bernicla) of the autumn, though they were pretending to be interior design (flying ducks anyone?).

I swapped locations and spent a few days at Lorton Meadows, managing to spot two Roe Deer (Capreolus capreolus) from the office! They can often be seen grazing in the play / picnic / pond area. Whilst a bit cautious, they spent a fair bit of time there before disappearing into other fields.

A new experience for me when our wildlife camera person came to check that the Barn Owl (Tyto alba) box and camera were still in good condition (they are), and I got to go up into the loft. Ignoring the anxious voice inside me muttering about heights, I went up and looked at the box for the first time – in which we found seven Small Tortoiseshell butterflies (Aglais urticae) hibernating!

As the name suggests, at the end of the week came the weekend! Sadly it was my last full weekend in Dorset but I made the most of it! My parents came down to see me and amongst visiting awesome places, we also went out to local restaurants and watched a sunset over the Fleet. Our first location of awesomeness was RSPB Arne Nature Reserve in the Purbeck area of Dorset. I have been meaning to visit for ages and despite a touch of chill in the day, it was fantastic – dragonflies, birds, fungi, deer and more!

The weekend wasn’t over yet though! Oh no, we also went to watch Motor X on Weymouth Beach followed by a visit to Portland Castle! Naturally, I was most interested in seeing what wildlife was about, but I did enjoy reading about the castle’s history, using their interpretation and playing (well, winning) a game of Nine Men’s Morris with my dad. The game is basically a big version of Noughts and Crosses, and was good fun to play. I am tempted to make my own set!

Crossing the bridge to see the rest of the gardens, I found a ladybird wandering around on a bush. The proceeded to find another 100+ ladybirds – some in larvae form, some as pupae and some as adults. I found three different species, but also a couple of different versions of some species. For example, the Ten-Spot Ladybird (Adalia 10-punctata) has a few possible colour variations. Flick through the photos below for the identifications, or you can look at my Twitter thread on them.

The larvae look like they are quite evil, don’t you think?

I couldn’t let my parents without taking them to Lorton of course! Neither had been before, so a late evening walk across the meadows was perfect. As well as pointing out the birds, we ate blackberries and I showed them oak galls. In the pond area I found an Elephant Hawk-Moth caterpillar (Deilephila elpenor), which was rather small so presumably one of the earlier instars (stages of being a larva). It looks like it is plotting world domination!

And the aforementioned sunset, such beauty to finish off my penultimate week in Dorset.

 

UK Species Profile: Fallow Deer, as voted winner!

If you took part in the species profile poll last month, you may have seen that the winner was the Fallow Deer whose scientific name I absolutely love – Dama dama. I was fortunate enough to work within, and live on the edge of, an amazing country park that was home to three different species of deer – Fallow, Red and a Chinese species, the Pere David’s (listed as Extinct in the Wild, a very interesting species to read about, but not now).

A female Pere David's deer, a tad odd looking

A female Pere David’s deer, a tad odd looking

The Fallow Deer are such a recognisable deer species – well, when they have their antlers … and if they have the spotted coat, otherwise there are possibilities of confusion if you’ve not read up on your deer identification.

Relaxing in the sunshine

Relaxing in the sunshine

If you’re new to deer identification, I’ll take you through the main features.

  • Antlers (males aka bucks only) – unique for a British species, they are palmate with a flattened section, rather than the typical branched antlers that you’d associate with deer (i.e. think of Red Deer and their antlers).
My palmate deer antler

My palmate deer antler, note the flattened part

  • Coat – the most common and associated pattern is the tan colour with white spots and three colours (tan, pale tan and then white on the belly), but other varieties include a paler version (Menil), black, white (these are not actually albinos, it’s a true coat colouration).
An example of a black colouration

An example of a black colouration

  • Bum (rump) – from the back, this deer has got a white backside which is bordered with black, and black down the tail so that a ‘M’ is formed.
White rump with a black 'M'

White rump with a black ‘M’

Fallow Deer are actually native to south-west Asia, but were introduced to Britain by the Normans around 1100AD and it is now the most common deer here. It is now a naturalised species, and not considered as an invasive threat (basically, it’s been here so long that we’re just like: yeh, you guys are ok here).

These deer stand at a decent height – between 50-120cm, which is a measurement of their shoulder height (i.e. not the neck, head and antlers!). As mentioned previously, they have unique antlers in the UK, which are called palmate (compared to the usual branched). The bucks grow their antlers over summer to reach full growth by autumn, when they are used as weapons during the rut (fighting between the males for the females). Whilst growing, they are covered in a lovely furry skin called velvet, which dries and peels off in autumn. The antlers are then shed in spring, where they may then be gnawed and nibbled on by other animals, and the deer themselves, as they provide an excellent source of calcium. Younger males take a few years til they develop a fully grown set of antlers.

You can see the smaller antlers (young bucks), and the velvet on the antlers

You can see the smaller antlers (young bucks), and the velvet on the antlers

In terms of behaviour, the rutting is probably the most interesting to watch. Occurring in October, when the bucks are full of testosterone and the does (females) are available for the taking. There is plenty of fighting as the bucks defend territory and the does they’ve attracted. The bucks groan loudly and parallel walk to each other, sizing each other up, after which they may then fight.

The behaviour varies slightly with fallow deer depending on both the environment and the population density. Individual bucks may defend a particular area (rutting stand) which is attractive to the does, so one buck has a harem of females. Or the bucks may seek out receptive does where they are in low density areas. High buck densities may result in leks where a couple of bucks share the harem.

Females are polyoestrous – this means that if they do not conceive / become impregnated when they first come into season, they will come into season repeatedly. This means that fawns will occasionally be born as late as September (compared to the usual June-July). After a gestation (pregnancy) period of 234 days, the fawns are born in June-July, and are weaned by the next rut.

I don’t want to go on and on about Fallow Deer so I shall begin to round up the information. I had a fab time during my year in the country park (FYI: Margam Country Park in south Wales, very beautiful place). Mostly because I was generally loving my placement with the Field Studies Council, but I was also seeing deer everyday and that’s always going to cheer someone up (as well as the friendly ginger piglets on the farm, oh so cute!). One of my favourite parts of the week was a nature walk with KS2 school groups – we would always see the deer and it was great to see the kids’ reactions to such beautiful animals, and to help them learn more about the animals.

Beautiful animals in beautiful lighting

Beautiful animals in beautiful lighting

Some other interesting facts I’ve come across:

  • They can get quite old: 8-10 years (though 16 years can be reached by the females).
  • This deer species is often considered a serious pest, usually in commercial forestry, and are also a common cause of road accidents. They are often culled in some areas (particularly southern Britain) and their meat is sold for consumption (venison).
  • The sexes normally live separately for most of the year, only coming together for the breeding season.
  • Young males who are yearlings are called prickets.
  • It seems that I only have decent photos of the male deer!
One of my favourite photos, well done to the deer for lining up nicely

One of my favourite photos, well done to the deer for lining up nicely

References

The Deer Initiative

Discover Wildlife

Forestry Commission

Mammal Society