Shad visits the otters

Otters are one of my favourite kinds of animals because of their happy disposition and kind-hearted attitudes towards each other.  I defy even the grumpiest of humans to watch them and not smile at their playful antics.  They obviously have their duties to perform such as hunting for food, feeding their young, building dens and protecting their environments, but they also engage in lots of fun behaviours just for the sheer enjoyment.

The Asian Short-Clawed otters (the smallest species of otter) were super sociable, chattering constantly to each other and gobbling up their food with gusto.  Apparently they can vocalise 14 different sounds to communicate with each other and they use their feet to find food under the rocks on the river beds where they live in the wild.  We watched the keepers try to replicate this at feeding time by throwing food in places where the otters had to dig using their sensitive webbed feet and those cheeky rascals didn’t miss a single morsel!  They happily chased each other around their enclosure, playing catch with a pebble and juggling a bit of fruit, squawking at the keepers every time they went by.

Different species will vary in their social structure, and the Eurasian otter is a more solitary animal, like rescue otter Millie.  The keepers have tried to introduce her to a companion on a couple of occasions but Millie prefers to be a singleton, making friends with the keepers instead, so she will remain in her safe permanent home at the Park.  The keepers also care for around 15 to 20 rescue otters every year, often orphaned young, using minimal human intervention and clandestine means to ensure their needs are met so that they can be released back into the wild.

The giant otter lives in family groups and is the most vocal of the otters, keeping in contact with its group through continuous barking and squeaking.  Habitat destruction and hunting for their fur are the major causes of their decline.  We watched Simuni and Akuri charging around their enclosure, posing for the cameras and diving into their water with ease and grace.

The North American River otter is the only river otter found north of Mexico and was at the brink of extinction due to its beautiful coat being used in the 1700-1800s in the fur trade which saw the slaughter of hundreds of thousands of these precious animals.  Thanks to the efforts of conservation and wildlife rehabilitation centres, their numbers are slowly increasing.  River otters are mostly active at night which might be why Hudson and Jasper were sleeping in their shelters when we visited.

Shad does the New Forest Wildlife Park again

This weekend was set to have a dry sunny day (an unusual phenomenon given the seemingly endless rain of recent weeks), so John and Natasha decided to give the New Forest Wildlife Park another whirl.  I woke up on Sunday morning to the fragrant aroma of cream cheese and bacon on bagels.  Mmm!  After a quick nibble on somebody’s breakfast, we packed our equipment and the people donned appropriate outdoor-wear before heading west.  Oh and don’t worry, I normally have a healthy protein-based breakfast but Sundays are special treat days and I’m not one to miss an opportunity!

One of my favourite things about the New Forest conservation park is the environment.  Surrounded by trees and shrubs, it feels like you’re deep in the forest and I half expected one of Robin Hood’s merry men to leap out of the bushes in a pair of tights!  Many of the enclosures are open for the animals to roam freely, such as the sika deer, the rabbits and the wallabies.  When I say open, there are still double gates at the end of each section to ensure the animals don’t stray far.  Of course, the open enclosures are only appropriate for certain creatures, not including the pack of 5 wonderful wolves we saw running around their paddock.  We watched them feed and the keeper gave us a talk, telling us all about how the wolves communicate more by body language than by sound, and how much more active they are than cats (the cheek)!  These beautiful creatures were once found in large numbers in this country but hundreds of years of persecution have exterminated them from our lands, a memory than lingers in the instincts of the wolves we saw making a dash for their food before putting a safe distance between themselves and the humans.

There are so many furry mammals there, like the pole-cats, badgers, water voles, ferrets and the elusive pine-martens who were particularly hard to spot.  I also met some of my most impressive and resourceful cousins, the endangered Scottish wildcats (felis silvestris grampia to give them their Latin name).  They resemble muscular domestic tabby cats, but with thicker coats and bushy black-and-brown ringed tails.  They survived human persecution for five hundred years more than the British wolf did, and over a thousand years more than the British lynx.  They are now only found in Scotland and their intelligence, patience and agility are respected by Highland farmers and gamekeepers who recount tales of the wildcat mother dying to protect her kittens from attack or dipping their paws into shallow water to scoop out fish for dinner.  These misunderstood creatures have been portrayed as ferocious but, like most pussy-cats, they enjoy peace, routine, and personal space, and will only attack if they are hunting for food or feeling cornered.

The distinct whiff of dung hit my nostrils and I caught sight of the long shaggy brown coats of the bison wandering around chewing on the grass.  Even bison have been affected by habitat loss and hunting over the years and are now mostly found on ranches or in areas of conservation.  These particular animals are European bison and they are extinct from the wild.  They might grow to 6 feet tall at the shoulder, 10 feet in length and 1,000 to 2,000 pounds in weight, but their pastimes include rutting and wallowing in mud and they stink.

You have no idea how tempted I was to arch my back, raise my hackles and mock charge sideways towards the little harvest mouse chomping on seeds and grains from a bowl in its glass-fronted pen.  But I am a civilised rational feline who can operate a camera and take part in philosophical debate, so I can certainly exercise restraint over my base urges.  With blunt noses, tiny black eyes and hairy ears, harvest mice are the smallest British rodent, around 5 cm long and weighing a tiny 5 to 10 grams.  They have auburn brown fur with a white underside and their scientific name is micromys minutus (how cute is that!).  They seemed very busy, climbing, building their nests and feeding, so we left them to it, and headed off to see the lynx cat.

I sauntered coyly towards the enclosure that contained the lynx, and my eyes narrowed with envy as I caught sight of her elegant tufty ears and thick fluffy ruff that framed her face.  This Eurasian lynx is called Munchkin and she has a stimulating enclosure on a slope filled with trees, wooden climbing frames and sheltered areas.  We gave each other the obligatory eye contact and subtle ear twitches communicated our understanding of each other’s situations.  This solitary and secretive cat allowed us to watch her for a while before bounding up on to one of her ledges in a tree and surveying us from on high.  The Eurasian lynx was an original native of the British Isles but disappeared from Western Europe due to habitat destruction and human persecution.

Next time I’ll tell you about some creatures I met who made me laugh so much.  They live with their families, have whiskers and offspring called pups, and enjoying romping playfully.

Shad does the New Forest Wildlife Park

John took me on a forest adventure this weekend to a wildlife park near Ashurst in Southampton.  It’s part of the New Forest, an ecologically rich area of grassland, heathland and woodland in the south-east of England which provides habitats for all kinds of rare and unusual plants, insects, birds and mammals.  The wildlife park is set deep in the forest and surrounded by tall trees that looked to me like giant fortresses topped with emerald-green and nut-brown foliage.  I could feel the eyes of the multitude of shy forest creatures that were hiding in the trees watching me as I trotted along next to John.

We followed the moss-veiled trails that led to some animals that I don’t often get the chance to photograph.  Like the big beefy bison that was lazily munching on some grass.  He appeared peaceful and unconcerned but I had no doubt that one insolent flick of my tail might cause him to lower his solid horned head and charge towards us.  I was pleased to see the lynx, with its short tail and tufts of black hair on its ear-tips, it had large paws and all the characteristics of a finely-tuned stealth survivor.  Then there were the gregarious and industrious giant otters, highly sociable animals who live in extended family groups.  They were most entertaining, sleeping happily together in huddles and playing noisily, barking, snorting and whistling at each other with enthusiasm.

All of these animals are highly endangered, struggling to adapt to habitat loss and fighting for their lives when they are hunted, the bison for their meat and skins, the otters for their velvety pelts and the lynx for their fluffy patterned fur coats.  Despite the humans that are willing to inflict suffering and even wipe out an entire species for the sake of fashion or status, there are many more humans willing to protect what nature has provided us and teach others to do the same.  The New Forest Wildlife Park actively promotes the conservation of animals through rescue work as well as participation in breeding programmes to protect the future of many endangered species, from our native orphaned and injured otters, owls and deer, to the European bison, the little harvest mouse and the rarely seen Scottish wildcat.

This natural forest environment was the perfect area for us to spot much local indigenous wildlife and, when I stopped to listen, I could hear the occasional drumming woodpecker or the scurrying of a squirrel crunching twigs and rustling leaves as it busied itself looking for its next meal.  Also looking for meals were the birds, like the bold robin who landed right in front of us hoping for a bit of John’s sandwich.  Don’t worry, regular readers know I like birds and I’m well in control of my hunting instincts, so the birds are safe with me (although John keeps an eye on me as a precaution)!