Village Voices Nature Note: a Good Start to the Year
What better way to start the New Year than a walk along the coastal path at Shingle Street. You might start something else new. You might start a hare. Since parts of the beach grassed over in the recent years we’ve been blessed with regular visits from these lovely loping creatures. They were always common in the fields at the back but you can often now put one up near the front of the houses and watch it streaking away in a trademark mazy run, zigzagging to confuse any potential pursuer. You can forget about any pursuit yourself, though. The scientific name of the hare is Lepus, which comes from the Latin Levipes meaning ‘light-footed’. And so they are. They have a top speed of about 50 mph and can jump ten feet in one bound. Unlike rabbits, they live their whole lives above ground, usually on open fields, so they depend on their rapid acceleration to escape natural predators like foxes and stoats. They also have eyes set so far back in their heads that they have almost 360-degree vision and can spot trouble a long way off. They’re about twice the size of rabbits and have those distinctive long ears, black at the tips and pink velvet inside.
What with climate change you may soon be seeing mad March hares dashing about in January, and you might even catch sight of a couple of them ‘boxing’. This isn’t, as you might suppose, an all-male event, but is more likely a female fending off an amorous male. They’ve long had a reputation for lechery. In classical times the hare was sacred to Aphrodite, goddess of erotic love, and the Roman author Pliny tells us that eating a hare could enhance your sexual attractiveness for nine days. Only nine days? Well, it’s another kind of start, I suppose. Anyway, there is some truth in the old folklore because hares are certainly very fertile. They have up to four litters a year and the females can even get pregnant again while they are still pregnant the first time around. But there’s a reason for that, too. The young leverets are born fully furred and with open eyes, but they are still very exposed and vulnerable at first and to avoid advertising their exact whereabouts the mother (the ‘jill’) only visits them once a day to feed them milk, usually in the evening. They remain easy prey, however, and there’s a very high mortality rate.
We used to be enjoined to ‘go to work on an egg’. I think ‘start a hare to start the year’ is as good a slogan.
Jeremy Mynott 25 November 2022
Chinese water deer
23 Aug 2022
We get Chinese water deer around the dykes in SS, usually shy and well-concealed, but I had a great view of one in the open on Orford Ness, galloping across the stone desert.
Village Voices Nature Note: Strange Combinations
03 Jan 2022
Have you been doing quizzes over the Christmas break? I was stumped by one of those Codeword puzzles the other day. I was looking for a seven-letter word with ‘tj’ in the middle, which is a rare combination in English. I could only come up with ‘straightjacket’, ‘bootjack’ and ‘nightjar’ – all of them too long. Well, the answer turned out to be ‘muntjac’, which I should have thought of since I’d just seen one in Shingle St, ducking hurriedly into a shrubbery.
Muntjacs are not a native species and they still look rather strange in an English landscape. The unusual name is a clue to their origins. It’s derived from a Dutch word, which in turn comes from the Sundanese, a language from Java in the Dutch East Indies. Muntjacs are animals of Asian rainforests and were first introduced into Britain in 1925 by the 11th Duke of Bedford for his wildlife park at Woburn. Inevitably, some escaped and they have now spread rapidly northwards, reaching as far as Scotland and even Northern Ireland (assisted passage, presumably).
This explains some of their unusual physical features, too. They are our smallest deer – about the size of a large dog – and have a most unusual profile, with the hindquarters higher than the front end, so that they always seem to be walking downhill. That’s an adaptation to enable them to move easily through the dense vegetation of the monsoon forests which are their natural home. It also explains their shyness – they are safe from predators in that dark tangle and communicate with each other more by sound than sight, hence their other common name of ‘barking deer’.
Sex again, I’m afraid.They breed all the year round and the females can conceive immediately after giving birth, so there’s always plenty to bark about. If you hear eerie barks and screams round here at night, it’s more likely to be muntjac than your neighbours.
Their other spooky adaptation is a set of long recurved fangs, very prominent in the males and quite disconcerting if you encounter one close up. Most deer have large antlers for mating displays, but those would just get caught up in undergrowth in the jungle. Moreover, the muntjac’s tusks are hinged and can be folded away when not needed for combat – so more like flick-knives than daggers. Neat!
It’s always a risk introducing a new species into an established habitat and muntjac do quite a bit of damage here browsing bushes and cropping such much-loved woodland flowers as bluebells and primroses.
But I gather from a game-keeper I know that their venison makes very good eating, so maybe that points to a solution?
Chinese water deer
A rare sighting of a Chinese water deer out in the open between the twin dykes this evening. Textbook individual with its teddy bear ears and little tusks. Bounded off when I got within 50 yards.
11 Jul 2015
Just after 10pm I was standing on my back veranda (Coast House) and heard a rustling below me. It was a dry hot evening. I went to get a torch and crept in the direction of the sound. To my delight I just caught site of a medium sized hedgehog as it scurried off having heard me move It's several years since I've seen one here- or anywhere.
08 Jul 2015
Caught a 'pygmy shrew' in one of our small mammal traps today. It really was tiny: the body couldn't have been more than 50mm, though the tail was almost as long again. Deserves it's Latin specific name of 'minutus'.
Marsh harrier patrol
28 Jun 2015
Saw a nice male marsh harrier patrolling the grazing marshes today. Since I've also seen barn owls and short-eared owls doing the same in the last few days this must be good news for the mammal survey team. These raptors wouldn't be here unless there were voles and other rodents around. They are probably better at catching them than we are, but keep trying please!
23 Jun 2015
A short-eared owl was recorded from the sea-walls this morning. Interesting to know where this might have come from. A few have bred in past years on Orford Ness, but most of the ones we see here in winter months migrate over from Scandinavia when the vole supply gets low over there.
21 Jun 2015
Took a last walk at dusk on the longest day. A barn owl was quartering the fields and we were probably both hunting the same thing – voles, since I was inspecting the small mammal traps I'd set to check on the vole population here. I hadn't caught any, but he did, swooping silently down to pluck one from the tussocky grass. A ketrel was hovering there too, hunting for the same thing, but it was getting a bit late for him since unlike the barn owl he was relying on sight not sound.
27 May 2015
Barn owl hunting in the evening over the fields. A welcome return since they've been less regular in recent months and I gather they have been suffering regionally as a result of a cold spring last year and a downturn in the rodent populations on which they depend. This tends to be a cyclical process so let's hope they will be breeding again here soon.