Review of 2020 in the Meadows – Part One

Over the course of a normal year, we would expect to be away from the meadows for several weeks. This year, we have scarcely been anywhere and never have the meadows been so comprehensively observed and photographed. Looking through the images that I want to include in this annual review, I find that there are way too many to shoehorn into a single post. So this instalment – Part One – covers roughly the first four months, January to April.

The annual jamboree of Frogs gathering together to spawn in late winter is quite a spectacle but it seems that it never goes without some sort of a hitch. One year, Foxes waded into the pond and feasted on all the frogspawn. Last year, there was complete carnage when a Heron ate all the Frogs – hundreds of them. This year, we had come up with a cunning strategy of rigging a grid of string over the pond, restricting the Heron to fishing in one area only and not able to wade freely through the water.

Initially, this definitely did seem to unnerve the Heron. But this approach was ultimately doomed because the Foxes just couldn’t resist chewing through the string, rendering it useless as a Heron deterrent.

Then, inspired by Worzel Gummidge on television last Christmas, we had the idea to make a scarecrow, Mackenzie, to watch over the Amphibians. He has proved completely successful and we have had no Heron visit whilst he is on guard.

Without the Heron as a lethal assassin, the Frogs were free to get on with the serious business of producing the next generation:

By mid February, Mackenzie was standing proudly over a pond that was filled with spawn:

But the problem this year was that the Frogs decided to lay their spawn into such terribly shallow water. This was probably because it is warmer but, unfortunately, Magpies were then able to get at it and a lot disappeared.

Once the spawn had hatched into tadpoles, Mackenzie went off duty and spent the summer resting up in the shed. But he is back in position again now as we approach the end of the year and the time for the Frogs to start up again.

It isn’t just the Frogs that Mackenzie was protecting from the Heron. It was the Newts as well.

I probably got a bit over-obsessed by Newts in late March and spent a lot of time watching and trying to photograph the very attentive male Smooth Newts as they pursued the females round the pond. I bought a polarising filter for the camera to remove the reflections from the water surface which helped a lot.

In the middle of January, the camera taking videos along the cliff captured two Foxes mating and I do beg their pardon for including this here:

By mid March, some of the Foxes appearing on the cameras were noticeably heavily pregnant. One of these particularly stood out and she became known as the One-eyed Vixen.

After she had had her cubs, it became apparent that she and another of our resident Foxes had mange.

I began treating the Foxes with Arsen Sulphur, having first checked with the charity The Fox Project that this was alright for lactating females. Although I hadn’t yet seen her cubs, I knew she had some close by. The Foxes had been successfully treated with this here before and it involves putting drops onto honey sandwiches every night for six weeks. I put the sandwiches onto the stone pinnacle in the ant paddock because the Badgers don’t get up there until later in the night:

The six weeks finished in mid May and, because there was a camera trained onto the pinnacle, I could tell that the One-eyed Vixen had got a dose of the Arsen Sulphur every night. The fur on the other mangey Fox’s tail began to grow back in, which was really satisfying. But, by mid June, it became obvious that the One-eyed Vixen’s mange had not gone away at all and was, in fact, getting worse. She had developed a new area of fur loss on her neck:

The Fox Project recommended I now tried Psorinum. This is similarly applied as drops onto honey sandwiches, but only for one week. I also added some Arnica drops as well because they advised that these can help healing. Once again, I was able to confirm that the One-eyed Vixen got a dose on every one of the seven nights.

This time, the treatment worked completely. Here she is in September with her fur nicely grown back and how heartwarming is that:

I had put a lot of emotional energy into the battle to save this Fox from a miserable death from mange and she thanked me in her own special way:

During May, her cubs were exploring away from the den a bit more and now started turning up on the cameras:

As the summer progressed, the cubs got bigger:

One evening in the middle of July, the camera up on the strip captured a series of wonderful images of all four of them together spending some contented family time. These photos are one of the absolute highlights of the year for me because I felt that I had had a part to play in helping this story have a happy ending:

In early February, the camera looking down upon the Badger sett, caught this:

Badgers mate as soon as this year’s young are born so we knew that it was now likely that there were tiny cubs lying cosily underground, although we wouldn’t see them until the female allowed them up at the end of April.

However, we were in for a treat when the mother decided to move them from one sett to another in the middle of February. She transferred three cubs – triplets this year!

She moved them again in early April – again three cubs were carried across to a new hole.

But then things started to get a bit odd. In previous years, the mother chooses a warm, calm night in late April to finally allow the cubs to come above ground. She watches over them like a hawk and they are initially only up for a very short time in a highly controlled manner.

But this year, a single cub, still really wobbly on its feet at first, started appearing along the cliff path on its own from early April:

Eventually, its mother would come racing up and drag it back to the sett:

I started forming theories for what on earth was going on. Was there a rebellious cub this year who refused to stay underground and went out exploring against express instructions?

Throughout April, this single, unaccompanied cub appeared most nights:

On 23rd April, the mother Badger allowed her triplets up out of the sett for the first time. She is an excellent mother and maintained a vigilant watch over them for the first few days while they found their feet. But is one of these cubs the maverick who we had been seeing out on its own?

Eventually the photo below and many more like it provided me with an explanation that I hadn’t considered – that there were two separate families. Our normal mother did indeed have triplets, but one of her daughters from a previous year had also had a cub. It was this single cub of the young mother who was out roaming unaccompanied. The four cubs were all related and were often crèched together and watched by a single adult:

Throughout the summer, the cubs grew and played and learned how to be Badgers. However, the single cub did not seem to thrive like the triplets. Here it is in the middle of May:

And here again, with an adult to its right and one of the triplets to its left.

The young mother often still dragged it around, far more than seemed reasonable:

The male Badger is not allowed anywhere near the cubs for a while. On one occasion, he came through the hole under the fence and stumbled upon them by accident. He immediately started grooming the cub nearest to him:

But the female rushed forward and gave him a severe telling off and he quickly reversed backwards through the hole and retreated.

With the four cubs, two adult females and the adult male, all of a sudden there were a lot of Badgers about:

First year mortality for Badgers is 50-65%, would you believe, and so I was pleased whenever all seven of them turned up together at the nightly peanuts and I could confirm that everyone was still present and correct:

The littlest Badger, who had remained smaller and more delicate-looking than the others, had the most joyful of summers playing around with the other cubs and driving its mother to distraction. However, unfortunately it was last seen on 24th September:

The triplets, though, are still going strong.

The strip was rotavated in February. This is part of the Operation Turtle Dove project and we were about to embark on our third year of putting down supplementary food supplied by the RSPB to encourage Turtle Doves to visit and nest:

But we are yet to see a Turtle Dove here, despite our best efforts. Other threatened farmland birds, however, have definitely been thriving on the seed such as Yellowhammer, Grey Partridge, Linnets and Stock Dove. Three years ago, there were no Yellowhammer to be seen here but in 2020 the Bird Ringer caught and ringed around ten of them and I am still seeing more unringed birds on the cameras:

Just as the Hawthorn had unfolded its tender leaves at the beginning of spring, there was a vicious north-easterly wind that blew for several days. The leaves and flower buds along the whole of the 300m stretch of the westerly hedgerow became burnt to a crisp. Although the bushes did subsequent regrow leaves, they didn’t flower this year and subsequently, in the autumn, no berries have been produced.

On more sheltered stretches of hedgerow, the Hawthorn blossom survived. It is so exquisitely beautiful with those pink anthers against the white petals:

Here are some of the other things that were going on in the meadows in the first third of 2020:

We used coppiced birch from the wood to create another Beetle stack in the meadows. The wood will slowly rot underground and be available for Beetle species to lay their eggs into.

I am writing this post on the winter solstice. Yes, we have got there at long last and from now on the days will be getting a little bit longer with every passing day. Outside, heavy rain is being blown hard against the window panes, there is a new and unknown strain of Covid raging all about our ears and nearby Dover is completely gridlocked with lorries because of a perfect storm of the uncertainties of imminent Brexit and the rest of Europe understandably not wanting our new type of Covid. There has never been a better time, in my lifetime anyway, to sit tight and absorb oneself completely in the wonders of nature.

I hope to get the second episode of the Review of Meadows for 2020 out before Christmas, but in case I get overtaken by events and that doesn’t happen, then let me leave you with this for now:

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