No not a baby, nor me snoring, actually I cannot be absolutely sure what it is, as I have never caught the culprit in the act, they are so tiny!! On warmer days and nights throughout the year, from behind the wardrobe in one corner and from an under-eave cupboard in the opposite I am treated to a vocal battle, a veritable Caruso v.Pavarotti effort!! A steady quip..quip…quip…quip, repeated periodically but often replied to by the neighbouring singer. But what is making this noise you might ask? I think they are soft bodied creatures less than 3mm long from the order Pscocoptera… Booklice no less. I had regular choruses from amongst my insect collection store boxes (which heave with the little blighters!) at my old house in Medstead, but so far have only heard them in my boudoir, here a few kilometres away in Four Marks. The record books claim the loudest creature per size is a bug called a water-singer a Micronecta spp., and I can confirm that they make astonishing loud zip like calls from under water, having kept all sorts of water bugs in indoor aquaria. But Booklice are hardly rigid insects, yet they are clearly audible from 4m away!! If the BBC Wildlfe unit are listening you are welcome to help me catch the little devil’s singing away and I suspect will make the Guiness record book into the bargain!!!
Last night I was a budding script writer for the Beeb, my niche: agri-soap and period drama. A deadline was approaching so I hastened to my PC….In deepest Corsetshire, local wheeler-dealer Matt Cadbury has just bought himself the old quarry near Bakey Hill. Its full of trees and reeds and stuff, it’s a waste of good land, it is, he grumbled. A few weeks later after the locals were scarred witless by rumours that a toxic waste dump might be opening on their doorsteps, and local councillors had a splendid lunch in The Cow Inn. Matt got consent to build in the old quarry, providing all the necessary checks were completed.
‘I hate these hippy types, but this outfit seem switched on, their brochures got lots of nice pictures of Otters and fings on it, and they have lots of letters after their names, look!’
So Wildstuff r’ us were duly appointed to check out the place. Matt’s face fell when they told him about the newts and badgers, and orchids, and bats, and glow worms, and peregrines, and reptiles, and 17 Red data Book, and 52 Nationally Scarce plants and creepie-crawlies, but don’t worry they said it had a long standing mineral consent so we’ll just have to move the things out of the way.
‘The real problem is the newts! You need a licence’, they said.
‘Then get one!’ said Matt. Then I can sell it on to Bodgitt and Scarper Inc, they have offered £12 million, once all is hunky dory’.
A few weeks pass, and Matt rings up to ask about his licence. They have refused said Dr.Duffer of Wildstuff. They were happy about the 36 Great Crested Newts we found, but worried about the other 100 little black jobs that the surveyor saw but couldn’t identify. They have agreed to grant us a conservation licence so we can make some ponds ready to put the newts in once we start moving them. A year passes and EN came for a visit, but were very unhappy to see a clay lined hole full of water.
‘What’s this’, they said?
‘A pond,’ replied, Dr.Duffer.
No its not it’s a hole full of water, where are newts supposed to hide and lay eggs etc. etc. Go and get some weed and make it suitable.
Finally Wildstuff got the heave-ho, and GreenPants smoothed things out and got Matt his licence to move the newts out of the pit! What a bonus said Dr.Heron, although Wildstuff’s people only saw 36, they have said we can move up to 600!!
Trees are felled, fences and buckets put in place and the GreenPants dreamteam of ‘highly-trained’ ecologists start the big move. Gasps and whistles penetrate the morning air, as bucket after bucket is chock full of newts! Something is very wrong! ‘We’ve got 64 already, weren’t there only supposed to be 36’. A week later 600 have been moved, an anxious ecologist rings up DEFRA, to see what can be done, and to explain that this place is heaving with newts. A friendly South African lady says not to worry she can amend the licence,‘would 2000 be enough?’
‘Yes siree, cough ..cough… I mean that’s fine’, says the relieved ecologist.
A fortnight passes and the 2000 mark is rapidly approaching. Well I suppose we better explain to the nice people at DEFRA that this place should be a SSSI, never mind an housing estate. Result, no one at DEFRA bats an eyelid, except to amend licence again to 5000.
23,000 Smooth Newts, 450 toads and 390 frogs later and the bulldozers move in.
Then I woke up with a start!
Whats the matter? says the Missus,
‘Oh nothing dear, No one will believe it, they’ll think I dreamt the whole thing up!’
Driving to work, I reflected on the lunacy that is licencing and the disparity between the endless hoops placed in front of the wouldbe licence applicant;-,
Thou shall molest newts endlessly even when the first visit tells you all you need to know (ie. Its heaving with them!).
Thou cannot assume the worst and present a lavish package of mitigation to get the ball rolling!
Thou shall churn the whole place up , risk drowning, mugging, and frostbite, to satisfy some jobsworth that’s the ponds got a medium population, only to get this bunked up, in two 2 minute phone calls to allow you to move 3 times the figure needed to have the place protected under European law. Even when you point out to them that the Planning Permission was granted on the basis of completely bogus survey results, nothing gets done!
Then you remember ecology is not a ‘precise’ science, and a 536 fold underestimate of a population can happen, indeed one might argue that had the survey been carried out in a different drier year none would have been found as there was nowhere to trap, or torch, and over 6000 GCN would have been bulldozed into oblivion.
It is very easy to get hold of a surveying licence, even if you have very little experience of actually surveying for newts. This leads to the misuse of bottle traps with dire consequences to newts.
The powers that be, insist on multiple trapping efforts being undertaken to ascertain the size of the population. This is needed to guide DEFRA as to the level of mitigation required after any works are undertaken. On the face of it, this is a sensible approach, however all too often the risk to newts in carrying out such survey far outways the potential risk to animals through the works programme.
For instance trapping in May and June could easily kill 10s of newts. If the guidelines had been adhered to at one site on the Isle of Wight, over 50 newts could have been killed. The pitfalling and destructive search which this data supported found one adult GCN, a toad and a slow worm. The fields which the pipelines crossed were grazed and used for hay/silage production. How many newts were killed by the normal farming operations??
The simple first step is to add a proviso that if any one census event (be it torch count or trap night) yields, say, over 50 newts in a pond, no further trapping should be needed or allowed. Areas like the Cheshire plain are home to other much rarer beasts such as Hydrochara caraboides, who’s egg cocoons are killed by being submerged, yet NE sanction dozens of GCN surveys that will result in this happening. I still wait to see a trap that is safe for Water Shrews.
Newt numbers invariably decline after May anyway, so the peak count based on may and June sampling is likely to be an underestimate..
A colleague of mine torched a site on the Welsh border and obtained a count of over 100 adults, despite this, a second consultancy decided to continue and trap the site resulting in the deaths of dozens of GCN. Some traps contained 7-10 adults, which had quickly exhausted any air reservoir left. Indeed in many of the traps none had been left, as despite claiming to have been trained the surveyors were undertaking their first trapping effort and had not put an air bubble and were shocked and upset when they realised their mistakes. Even if they had put in a very large air reserve how could they stop too many newts entering the traps!!
Looking at the Rev.White’s diary entries for this corresponding week in 1769,
‘Bees gather on the Crosuss’. ‘Missel-bird sings’. Daws to the churches’,
seems to confirm my suspicion that we have actually had a fairly typical old style winter again. Yesterday I saw my first hive-bee on the Crocus. Also my first butterfly: a Comma. Song and Mistle thrushes singing lustily on the 18th nearby, and on Valentine’s I had my first Blackbird singing in the dawn chorus (my second earliest beating last year’s Alton male of the 11th Feb) Jackdaws are all pairing up and seeking out chimneys and hollow trees, Kestrels seem to be everywhere, especially males making themselves obvious in their territories.
However some of my yellow crocuses were ‘blowing’ in January BEFORE any snowdrops, and on the 18th Feb some (albeit recently planted and therefore of suspect origins!) hawthorns were in leaf in Cobham, Surrey.
The mixed phenological message continues in the amphibian world with an intrepid very punctual Palmate Newt male seen on 9th January (same newt was a day earlier last year). Male frogs are stirring but the sheen of ice is keeping them frustrated. Next rain and it will be parptastic mating mayhem!
One super rare observation in my pond is that of an overwintering Great Crested newt eft (close to emergence). Palmate efts regularly overwinter, as do some Smooths, but GCN is a great rarity. My friend the ‘newt king’ Trevor Beebee had only seen it once. I have seen it once in the wild in Cumbria. Several overwintered in an old bath I was using to rear them in (also in Cumbria). I suspect that the overwintered larvae on emergence give rise to the also incredibly rare Smooth shaped GCNs. These are GCN with build and proportions of a Smooth Newt adult but with typical warty skin. I have seen these again in the Lake District, and Kent, 3 in all.
Alpine newt larvae also regularly overwinter. Maybe this trait gives them a head start in life as Alpines seem to end up being very numerous in introducted sites, out-competing the natives.
Other highlights;- found a Buttoned Snout overwintering in a Farnham Cellar on Saturday. Embarrassing really. I asked the great Graham Collins ‘what a moth like a Buttoned snout might be overwintering’…..err a BUTTONED SNOUT?? he replied!! I had forgot that it overwinters!!
Also a serious plug for the British Museum Ice Age Art exhibition. You really gotta see it!
30,000 year old sculptures and drawings. Extinct giant cave Lions and bears made of equally defunct mammoth ivory. Deep time………….. FROZEN!! Stupendous, congrats BM, it’s magic!!
Four Marks is one of the youngest parishes in Hampshire, so named because it is surrounded by four other older parishes, including Farringdon where the legendary father of British Natural History Gilbert White was curate.
Four Marks/Medstead is the highest railway station in Southern England, and the views out from the numerous lofty footpaths and bridleways afford spectacular vistas. To the east Butser Hill, and Selborne Hanger, and beyond the Weald and South Downs, extending into Sussex. Northward the Surrey heaths, Hog’s Back, and North Downs, North West the high chalk rolls off into Berkshire, and perhaps most surprising of all, is the Purbeck Range of Dorset peeping out over the rolling Hampshire downs.
For the enquiring naturalist, this countryside holds more secrets and wonders than could fill many lifetimes of study. These pages are an invitation to join in with the endlessly rewarding exploration and recording of the fauna and flora for which Gilbert White was such a sublime pioneering spirit.