Stoat Your Day Off Right

The other morning, I walked past Roger as he stood stock still and quiet in the back doorway.  His focused gaze clear.  Shhh.  Walk softly past.  I’m waiting to see something come out of that wall.

This particular wall is home to an abundance of life.  The rabbits who make quick get-aways when the dogs are outside.  Small birds making their nest homes among the narrow little cracks.  No doubt, the wall teams with bugs, worms, toads and loads of things we can’t easily see.   It must be an ongoing rave of tiny movements between the rocks and the mosses.  While Millie is chasing a ball, Brock is frequently sniffing parts of this wall, telling us there is a good deal more than meets the eye.  The plant life is spectacular.  Such a variety of mosses and lichen covering the rock surfaces it could easily impress a Japanese Zen gardener at Saihoji in Kyoto.

Crockern Farm Wall

It’s fair to say, Roger spots the majority of wildlife.  I may see it, but am often at a loss at identifying and naming. Roger sees, hears, and can identify the type of bird, animal and plant life easily.  It’s a skill I seek, but am most often off the mark.  Just when I think I can name the birds around Crockern, Roger will casually declare, “I just spotted a long-tailed blahdy-blah-blah”.  Lacking his skill set, who am I to question?

As Roger stood quietly in the doorway, his own wildlife hide, I crept up slowly to see what captured his attention.   He whispered coordinates of where to cast my view.   Just to the right of the Ash tree, down four stones and next to the tuft of ferns.  Do you see it?  There is a small, horizontal gap.   Watch that area.  This break in the wall, so easily unnoticed, suddenly was clear as day. The moss worn at the bottom of a decent sized opening.  Here is a faint, mini trail leading from the base of the hole out onto the yard.   Why hadn’t I taken notice before?  Millie and Brock frequently go sniffing about there. And while I chastised my untrained eyes, Roger pointed out the small movement in that particular void in the wall. I focused my attention and saw something.  A leaf caught in a clump of moss and fluttering in the breeze?  Then it happened again.  It was not a fluttering leaf, but a head busily poking in and out from the wall.  I too spied what Roger and the dogs already knew.  We have a Stoat!

Why this wall?  It seems a little close to the house.  Then again, we had a badger a few years ago burrowing about 30 feet from the front door. Unlike the badger or rabbit, a Stoat doesn’t dig its own burrow.  It’s opportunistic and will move throughout all the burrows and hideaways looking for prey. After it finds its prey, a Stoat will assume the home of the rodent it killed going so far as to decorate its new home with the skins and fur of said-dead-prey.  C-R-E-E-P-Y. That said, I suppose it is the ultimate in up-cycling.  With any number of stacks of logs, cracks in the walls, rock piles and the like, we’ve probably had a family of Stoats for some time.

Despite their approach to decorating their homes, they are adorable.  Those long and bendy bodies covered in a light brown fur on its back and a creamy white throat and belly.  Their tails tipped in black.  Cute they may be, this small little predator is just that, a predator. My thrill in spotting it was immediately offset with concern for our chickens.

Stoats are known for being well suited to hunting small rodents and rabbits. Bring it on little Stoat!  I just spent two days repairing the fourth of our six vegetable beds from rabbit damage.  Our local bunnies had burrowed up into the raised bed, despite a barrier beneath the soil.  I wouldn’t mind a small cull in this abundant population.

Our chickens are large hens, so should be okay with a Stoat moving into their neighbourhood.  And as long as there is an ample supply of rats, mice and other rodents, a stoat should be happy moving in and out of the wall’s hidden burrows.   Watching the activity at the bird feeders each morning, confirms a happy balance of supply and demand at Crockern.  Our chickens should be safely out of harm’s way.

One concern is stoats are known to eat eggs, but I’m not too worried about that since Brock occasionally does the same thing.  In Brock’s early puppy days, we witnessed him gingerly carrying an egg from the hens’ nest to the top of the hill.  Situating himself with a view, he would delicately position the egg between his paws .  Next, he would surgically make a small hole at the top of the egg, keeping the shell otherwise intact before slurp, slurp, slurping away at the raw egg.  Brock’s care in his thievery is impressive, as is his glossy coat.  Consequently, Roger and I check for eggs about ten times a day.  Brock and stoats be damned.

To encounter a Stoat before setting out on a journey is bad luck, or so goes the myth. As we stand in Roger’s make-shift observation spot, we both feel rather lucky to have spotted this Stoat and welcome yet another member to the diverse collective at Crockern.

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Hoo’s Looking for Birds?

At a recent party, I heard three separate conversations about Barn Owls. “Oh, we have one living in our shed.” “I have a Barn Owl roosting in my stables. ”  “You know, we’ve got a pair mating in our barn.”  And to each of these, I gave an acknowledging smile and grudgingly contributed, “Roger and I have spotted one once or twice on a standing stone along our track.”  Doesn’t compare, does it?

I love owls and spotting them is different from other types of birds.  Most are fairly elusive during the day, enjoying the nocturnal and crepuscular way of life.  This definitely doesn’t correspond with my behaviour.  I’m up with the sun, busy during the day and then ready to hunker down when the sun sets, particularly in winter when it is colder. Nothing beats sitting by the fire on a cold winter’s night, good book and glass of wine to hand.

Our wet and rainy December has given way to a less wet, but certainly colder January and February.  We had our first snow flurries the other week, but not much accumulation.  Then these past few days, the temperatures dropped to an angry cold, the clouds moved in and we have a proper eight or so inches of snow.  Currently, when the news isn’t about Brexit, it is all about the Polar Vortex gripping the Mid-West in America.  Less newsworthy, we’re having our own wild winter on Dartmoor.   The dogs go crazy in the snow, following the fresh scents and animal tracks on the surface.  They love nothing more than diving into a snow drift to chase a snow ball.  While Millie and Brock are busy sniffing newly laid scents, I am moved by the pure resonance of the dawn chorus.  This layer of snow dampens ambient sounds leaving a still backdrop for the songbirds.  Because of this and the play of morning light, I enjoy getting outside first thing.  Likely, right after any owls have decided to call it a night.

With this much snow, we presently have the moors to ourselves, except for a brave few photographers. This solitude won’t last long as no doubt, the weekend will bring all the madness of people coming to go sledding.  They will leave their cars parked all over, block gates, and leave behind a trail of litter.  This is the part of the snow fall I do not enjoy.   But the roads are not fully passable at the moment, so they haven’t arrived yet. This gives us a chance to fully embrace our own little winter wonderland and the thrill of laying our own fresh tracks in the snow.

IMG_4408

Roger andI head out onto the moors with Millie and Brock, the ashy coloured sky reveals an occasional patch of blue.  The sun has tentatively peeked out, lighting the clouds in a pleasing combination of pink, purple, and grey.  The tors look especially brooding on top of the hills in this light and with their dusting of snow.  With the wind to our backs, we march up past Crockern Tor, and then north along the ridge.

Trudging through virgin snow, we pass sheep who keep a watchful eye on Brock.  We do too as he is still working through his instinct to herd them.   After about forty-five minutes, we clamber to the top of some rocks, pause, and take in the views.  The sun is now casting our shadows across the gorse, reeds and granite boulders.  We catch sight of a bird of prey quartering low over the moors beneath our vantage point.  We watch it either hunting or waiting for a clear moment to feed on something already lying dead below.  Roger is certain it is a Hen Harrier, which we don’t often see.

It’s thrilling to spot a bird of prey.   They are spectacular and spellbinding examples of power and grace.  Possessing top predator status can’t be easy and that means they will never be as numerous as other birds, so there is a certain novelty and happy surprise to seeing these elusive creatures.  Since moving to Dartmoor, we have spotted Red Kites, Hen Harriers, Buzzards, Kestrels, Sparrow Hawks, Barn Owls, Tawny Owls, and Hobby.   Roger has spotted a Merlin, too. He once observed a pair of Peregrine Falcons in this very spot we are standing now.

Owls are part of this elite top bird group of predators.  And like all birds of prey, they are powerful, fast, graceful and nimble.  And yet, despite appearing ferocious, they are fragile.  I suppose that is what being a bird of prey ultimately means.   They sit on the top of the food chain and their numbers are essentially controlled by the amount of prey available to them, an amount so easily disrupted by climate and people.  With curiosity and admiration, we happily watch the Hen Harrier.

As we move on, I bring up the conversations at that recent party.  “Roger, why is it almost everyone seems to have a nesting Barn Owl?” “Roger, why don’t we seem to have nesting Barn Owls?”  “Roger, did you believe everyone’s comments about the nesting Barn Owls at the party?” “Roger, could there be that many nesting Barn Owls living in such close proximity?”  Clearly, my envy was getting the better of me because while many of our friends and neighbours are able to report Barn Owls living in their out buildings, all we can confirm are Jackdaws, rabbits, rats, mice, voles, toads, and a million spiders.  In the spring, Swallows and House Martins will join the crew.  And, Pied Wag-Tails will make nests in the cracks in the mortar of the building’s walls.

In the meantime, if I can’t see a Barn Owl, I’ll darn well listen out for one.  Unlike the hooting sound of the Tawny Owls living in the stand of Pines across the river, I will need to listen carefully for an eerie screeching and hissing sound.  I’ll also have to keep Millie inside as she enjoys nothing more than conducting a night time perimeter bark to warn off foxes and badgers, in order to keep our chickens safe.   I doubt we’ll get a resident Barn Owl anytime soon, though I may sign up for a Nest Box workshop at the local Barn Owl Trust.  It’s important to encourage new critters to Crockern.

Dartmoor

 

Badgers? We Don’t Need no Stinkin’ Badgers!

I awoke, as per usual, in the middle of the night and fumbled my way through the darkness to the bathroom, negotiating stairs along the way.  We have a small window in this room and looking out into the darkness, I was presented with a nocturnal surprise in the shape of a short, stubby-legged, plumpish animal, ambling around the yard.  It was 3:00 a.m. and I was bleary-eyed and tired, so I wasn’t certain what I was seeing at first, but I knew it was not a sheep, a fox, a hare, a dog, a cow, or even a Dartmoor pony.  It was definitely low to the ground and as my eyes adjusted to the moonlight peeking through the clouds and trees, I noticed that it also had an elongated head and its little black face had white stripes.

Since we don’t have skunks in the UK it could only be its cousin, the Badger.  With this sighting, we get to add them to our ever-growing list of critters and wildlife that come to visit us.   I watched him and took in his splendor as he slowly made his way past the chicken coop.  The chicken coop!  While I was thrilled to have experienced this rare sighting, I laid awake the rest of the night worried about the safety and well being of our hens.  The predator and prey relationship is all around us and we are doing our best to improve the odds of the prey in our care, namely our chickens and vegetables.

Ecologically speaking, predation is all about the relationship where one party feeds on another and we are indeed in the midst of this condition.  The slugs are predators, targeting mostly our Tatsoi and Turnips.   The chickens like to eat the worms in the soil, but also pick at the leaves of the Kale. The ticks in the grass occasionally find Sam.   Those sheep will eat everything and anything plantlike should they get in beyond the boundaries of our yard.   Inside the house, the spiders are busy building webs to attract all manner of smaller insect into their arachnid kitchen.  In Dartmoor, and especially in the high moors where we are, most of the land is undisturbed providing encouragement for wildlife, which on a daily basis reminds us that we are in the midst of some serious predation.

Thanks to The Wind in The Willows, The Tale of Mr. Tod, Fantastic Mr. Fox, or Watership Down almost all of us can identify a badger from pictures seen during childhood.  Sure, many of us have seen them squashed along the road by a car, or sometimes in the headlights on a country lane, but to see them in the wild doing their thing is almost exclusively the domain of a nature program with the aid of trip wires and hidden cameras.   To be looking out the bathroom window at this hour provided a rare and wonderful glimpse of this short-legged creature on his late night perambulation.

Badger from The Wind and The Willows

What timing, too!  The badger has been in the news a lot lately because in less than a month’s time a trial to determine if badgers can be killed humanely before extending a cull across the country to control the spread of bovine TB is about to begin.   The debate over culling badgers in England has opinions widely divided.  While most agree that bovine tuberculosis causes serious hardship to farmers and costs millions of pounds each year of the taxpayers’ money to control, there is little agreement about the science, policy development and wildlife conservation.

In absence of approval from the European Union for the use of the bovine vaccination, the British government has given approval for badgers to be culled in a pilot test in England this autumn.   This pilot cull is designed to exclusively examine whether or not badgers can be killed effectively and humanely, and is not about the scientific data of TB transmission since the carcasses will not be tested for signs of TB.   I find this problematic because on the basis of these results, government ministers will then decide whether or not to extend the culls nationwide.  In recent developments and due to public protest, the pilot cull may be delayed at least a year.

Seeing the badger that night, brought the controversy more immediately to mind, but these short-legged omnivores shouldn’t cause us problems, except where the chickens are concerned.  Badgers tend to eat earthworms, insects and grubs.  Hopefully, they aren’t averse to eating slugs, because we’d like to see those gobbled up on a regular basis.  Unfortunately, badgers can be a problem for the garden, as they seem to like to dig and eat roots and fruit.  So goodbye turnips!  They have an ability to tunnel after ground-dwelling rodents, so fair warning to the rats.  They also eat small mammals and birds, including chickens.   And, herein lies my worry.  If they were to get hold of one of our hens, she would not stand a chance.   I currently inspect the chicken coop weekly for any breeches that might make the hunting life easier for local predators, but now I must up my game on my own bio-security and ensure that the badgers can’t dig under the walls into the chicken coop!

Badger Track Dartmoor

Badger track next to our veg garden. Just under 4 inches!

As the weather turns colder and the days shorter, the grasses, bushes, and trees, are readying for winter, changing colour, dying back and dropping their leaves, generally providing less camouflage and making spotting the local wildlife a lot easier.  Scarcity of food and cover means seeing a fox or deer on the hillside during daylight hours is increasingly more likely.

While working in the garden the other day, I heard two buzzards screeching and calling as they circled slowly in the sky.  Something lay dead or dying on the hillside, and those buzzards were preparing for their meal.   More predators in our midst.   It was a beautiful sight to see these magnificent birds of prey float above the hill with the white on white clouds in the background.  The autumn light cast a low golden glow upon the trees that are beginning to change from their summer green, complimented by the reeds now swaying hay-coloured along the river.

Later that same day, Roger and I were surprised to witness, through the kitchen window, a Sparrowhawk drop suddenly from the sky and buzz through the garden, disrupting all the little birds at the feeders.  Failing in its attempt to snatch a bird, it took to resting on the fence.  For over ten minutes, we quietly watched from our own perch in the kitchen as it recovered from its failed mission, spreading its wings and flattening its body on the fence as if to cool down after the adrenaline rush that resulted in no lunch.  The chaffinches, tits, yellow hammers and nuthatches had all been put on warning.  For the next hour, there were no birds feeding in our garden.

Like any skilled predator, the Sparrowhawk marked this spot as easy pickings and returned the next day.  Again, no success.  But it was considerably bolder as on this occasion, Roger, Sam and I were all out in the garden when this magnificent bird seemingly appeared from nowhere, sending small birds in all directions to seek shelter.  It will be back and we may have to contend with one or two fewer birds at the feeder.

I appreciate that predation is just the order of things, but I still don’t want the badgers to get my chickens.