A Hedgehog at Dusk

Last summer, we ran in to one of Britain’s indigenous snakes. This evening, we returned from the local park at dusk and waiting at the end of our front garden path, overlooking the drop of the curb, was a hedgehog. This was the first live hedgehog we’d seen since arriving 18 months ago, and the kids were ecstatic. Using a shovel, we airlifted him from the danger of the road (throughout the year, we’d seen pieces of a few less fortunate hedgehogs on the roadside) to the safety of our back garden whereupon it sat for 10 minutes before scurrying off in to the garden shed. A brief argument ensued about what our new found friend should be christened. ‘Annabelle’ was the choice of our younger daughter, after one of her favourite literary characters, while the elder sibling opted, perhaps wisely, for the gender-neutral ‘Hedgie’.

Later, we pulled out the nature books and took the opportunity to learn a little more about hedgehogs.

Hedgehog

We don’t always have our weekends planned out, so many times, we go places at the last minute.  That happened a couple weekends ago when we decided to go to a heavy horse show in Eridge.  We had seen the signs for a while and didn’t know what to expect.  It wasn’t the best of weekends, cloudy and all, but we didn’t want to sit indoors.  So, we decided to check it out. 

I looked on the internet first to see the start times.  I found out they had dogs and birds of prey in addition to the horse show.  It was a charity event for the Working Horse Trust.  We arrived just after some competition had ended and were worried that we had missed the main event.  It turned out they had quite a lot planned, some had to be cancelled due to illness, etc.  But, we got there just in time to see a “Bird of Prey” demonstration by Chris Neal.  Apparently, he has done some nature programs on TV previously, and it really shows in his performance.

I’ve always had a fascination for birds of prey.  I used to love watching them circle in the sky.  When we were in New Hampshire, we happened on a bird of prey display in support of a wildlife rescue program.  It was amazing to look at the birds close-up.  But it was just a display.  In Ohio, watching the buzzards return in the spring was a major event for some locals.  I never saw it, but I always saw them sitting in trees, on barns, and even in front of some people’s yards.  Again, it seemed I had a morbid fascination with them (even though buzzards aren’t technically birds of prey, they’re always included).

Chris Neal did things differently.  He invited photographers out onto the field with him so that they can photograph the Harris hawks as he flew them here and there.  He also challenged them to photograph the birds as they attacked a “prey” (fake).  He said that if they got a good shot, he would take them out on a day with him in the Shropshire moors.  My husband didn’t show him his pictures, but he hopes he has a good enough shot to send to him and perhaps get invited.  I don’t know if my husband has ever had a fascination with these birds, but after that day, he showed some serious interest. 

Mr. Neal then brought out an eagle owl. It was huge and graceful.  He invited the kids out to get close-up.  He had them lay on the ground while the eagle flew above them.  Then he had them form two rows and the owl flew between them.  Our older girl was game for anything and was out there in a jiffy.  She loved it.  Our younger daughter gets scared easily, so she sat out.  However, there were two demonstrations during the day, and at the second one, she did go out.  She came back smiling but said it scared her.

Lastly, a falcon came out.  That was the best part, especially during the first demonstration, not just because it was new, but because the demonstration was more rushed the second time as we started to get a little shower and he couldn’t fly the birds in the rain.  He allowed it to fly so far out that we lost sight of it.  When he came back, he was just a speck in the sky, and this guy’s eyes were so good that when people pointed out possible sightings, he knew it was a “pigeon” and not his falcon.  Mr. Neal brought out the lure and the falcon came swooping in.  It was fast!  And beautiful!

Since then, we have seen two more demonstrations, though not as spectacular.  One was at an animal farm that my older daughter insisted on going to (she was not interested in the birds, just the other animals and the play area) while we were on vacation.  Though the demonstration was not as good, they did have an amazing collection of birds and the girls liked looking at them.  We even saw a golden eagle.

The other was in the safari park (to be discussed in another post).  Since it was not the main attraction, it was a smaller collection than at the farm.  But it was still fun to watch these birds and we learned different things about them at each demonstration.  Each of the last two demonstrations also invited adults and children to come out and handle the birds.  We did not take advantage of the opportunity for various reasons.  My husband wants to take some falconry classes and become a falconer.

I have to say that, though many of the wildlife here in the UK can be found in the US, I have not personally experienced many of them until I lived here.  Today presented another new experience.  Had I reached the poor animal first, I probably would have squealed and jumped, crying out against the rodent population.  As it was, my cool, level-headed husband found it first.

He was on his way out to the car when he spotted a small, furry animal on the ground.  Needless to say, it was dead.  But, instead of jumping out of the way, he examined it and found that it looked like a long-nosed mouse.  He suspected it was something other than a mouse, so he went back in and pulled out one of our nature guides.  Sure enough, it was a shrew. 

My animal-loving kids had to go see.  They thought it was so adorable.  I won’t say what I thought.  I don’t know much about shrews, but I know they aren’t rodents.  Yet, they breed like rodents.  One thing is for sure.  Since shrews usually burrow underground, I cannot blame the scratching in the loft on them.

Our grass has gotten so overgrown that we are unsure what might be living within. And, this morning, on our way to the car we had a little surprise.

Our eldest daughter and I left the house and started up the garden path towards the car.  After a few steps we both stopped, transfixed, staring at the 2 feet long snake that glared at us from the garden path.  Unperturbed, the snake reared up a little as our daughter approached it.  After a few seconds it casually turned and slid off in to the grass.  I ran back in to the house for the camera, but it had long gone before my return.

It had a clear, bright yellow collar on the back of its neck and this distinctive feature later allowed us to identify it as a grass snake.  These are not venomous.

The return of the reds

When Walker’s decided to create new flavours for its crisps, one of the popular ones was Cajun Squirrel.  I never tasted it, and I don’t know which one Walker’s will decide to eventually add to its line, but I just thought Cajun Squirrel was a silly joke.  Apparently, this is not the case.

The campaign to reintroduce and protect the red squirrel has been so successful in the north, that the man behind the campaign is moving south to do the job.  He has reported that the gray squirrels are a delicacy and have been in great demand at butcher’s and restaurants.  (I wonder if Walker’s has been putting in orders.)  In the US, we called them “road kill” (and, yes, people in the US have devised a wide selection of road kill recipes), but here, the squirrels are trapped.

It doesn’t sound very fair to the grays, and I do wonder if there’s a difference in the taste between the grays and the reds.  And what about the blacks?  They’re still quite rare over here.  I hope they don’t end up killing all the grays.  In the US, we had the full range of colours.  We even had bi-racial squirrels running around our yard – red fur covering half the way, black the rest, and various other combinations.  I hope this doesn’t become a one-squirrel country.

Several of my colleagues have blogged about rats.  We had a mice problem, not a rat, thankfully, but I was reading an article about rat infestations today and it made me cringe.  You think immigration is bad.  What about the rat population?

The article stated that the rat problem is worsening in England due to many factors, such as, population growth, litter, bird feeding, compost heaps, poison resistance and mild winters.  There was a rat infestation in North Yorkshire, but they say it is now under control.  Pest control argued that we need stronger poison.  The rats have become resistant to the current sublethal dose of anticoagulants used as poison in those grain baits.  We have created “super-rat”, like those “super-bugs” that are resistant to antibiotics.

I was not aware that rats can produce every 6 weeks, with a litter of 6-8 babies.  Yuck!!  We had hamsters and that was bad enough.  I don’t even want to imagine rats.  Not only are rats a pain in the butt, but they do carry and spread disease, which is the worst part.

Several people commented, with a few in defense of rats.  Uugh!  Anyhow, one person commented that she tried a method recommended by PETA that kept rats away.  It was a mixture of cayenne pepper, horseradish, garlic and salad oil. You let it steep, then spray it around bins, etc.  It may work to keep rats away, but that only makes your problem someone else’s problem, as another pointed out.  In order to control the rat infestation, you need to kill them.  I agree with this.  Some people might be squeamish to use baits.  I’m sorry if I offend any animal rights activists, but I say kill them in whatever way that works.  These are pests, not household pets.

Every country has its unique group of wildlife. Although they may have many of the same animals present, the number varies; therefore, you might find animals in the UK that you rarely see in the US and vice versa.

Take for example, the gray squirrel. When I first came to the UK, I was informed that the gray squirrel had practically ran off the red squirrel. That may have been the case years ago, but some people had decided to save the reds and new colonies are appearing. But the most interesting fact is that the black squirrel has suddenly been introduced. Authorities have now discovered that they came from American squirrels who escaped from the zoo (which zoo?). Black squirrels are not very common in the US either, but they are prevalent in certain areas, such as Ohio.

Deer are very common in the US – you usually see them splattered about on the highways; although occasionally, you might be lucky enough to dodge them. We have not seen many dead deer here, but we have had whole families crossing the road almost oblivious to traffic. We also see herds of them grazing off the farmland. We know some farmers don’t appreciate that. I don’t believe they are hunted here as they are in the US.

The animal most likely to be hunted is the pheasant. We came upon a truck full of farmers and hunters, and dead pheasants loaded up on the side. Most likely, they were on their way to the local butchers. The pheasant is an interesting creature. Although it can fly, most often it chooses not to. Rather, it will duck its head forward and race out of your way, almost like a road runner. Pheasants are also most likely to be the road kill over here. That is in contrast to squirrrels, raccoons, deer, cats, dogs etc. in the US.

Another road kill that I have never seen in the US is the badger. They are usually nocturnal creatures, although occasionally, they may venture out during the day. Or, driving at night, you might just pick them up in your headlights.

For me, though, the most interesting animal is the fox. Yes, foxes are common in the US, too, but I have never had any experience of them. Without putting myself in their way, I have learned a few things about the fox that I would not have learned in the US. For example, the fox’s urine stinks almost as bad as a skunk’s deadly spray. We learned this after walking out of my in-law’s garage. My husband and I noticed a skunky smell, but it seemed rather confined. We saw a small yellow puddle nearby and my father-in-law informed us that there were foxes in the area that liked to leave a little of themselves in the neighbourhood. Another distinctive feature is the fox’s bark. The first time I heard it was when we were staying at my in-law’s (in the London area). I thought it was a baby crying until my husband informed me that it was a fox. More recently, I heard a very harsh cry, almost like a crow being mauled. It was eerie and spine-tingling. When I tried to explain it to my mother-in-law, she told me it was the fox’s mating call. Unbelievable. If I heard that call, I’d be likely to run the other way.

Other interesting animals that I have seen briefly and would like to know more about are the different species of waterfowl. Outside Arundel Castle were more-hen and coots. There were others that we have not identified and will probably need to bring some kind of guidebook. More for later then.