Shad does the British Wildlife Centre

Not many animals can grow themselves a pair of earmuffs every winter to keep their ears warm.  But the attractive ear tufts of the red squirrel are only required during the winter months and are molted in time for summer, ready to sprout again the following year.  I have tufty bits on my ears but they don’t shed and spread according to the season.  Still, I’m not jealous!  Anyway, if I want warm ears, John puts a woolly beanie on my head, which never goes down well because it messes up my coiffure!  The super-friendly red squirrels roam free in the walk-through enclosure and there were also some young ones called kittens can you believe.  I watched them hurtle across the trees and climb up John’s leg and one of them sat on his backpack and nibbled a toggle in case it was a nut.  They didn’t have to wait long for food when the keeper came with a bag of sunflower seeds, pine-nuts, apples and carrots.  It’s a myth that red squirrels eat acorns because in fact the acorn is difficult for the squirrel to digest.  Sadly they are very few in numbers thanks to the introduction of the grey squirrel from North America.  Not the poor old grey squirrel’s fault of course, but they carry a virus that is lethal to reds and have a tendency to gobble up the food before it matures enough for the reds to eat.


The British Wildlife Centre in Lingfield (Surrey) was the location of my tour of Britain’s nature and it was a fabulous opportunity to see a great collection of species native to the country including buzzards, eagle owls, adders, badgers, Muntjac deer and the endangered water vole.  The dinky little stoats and weasels were only around 7-10cm long and as cute as buttons but apparently they are voracious little carnivores and you wouldn’t want to stick your paw out to one of them.  Stoats, weasels, polecats, mink and pine martens are members of the ‘mustelid’ family and have all faced persecution by being hunted for their fur.  But they are feisty little critters and a few escapees are starting to re-populate numbers in the wild.  Unlike the meek and mild hedgehog who are becoming increasingly rare in the UK’s gardens and hedgerows.  I was lucky enough to watch Turbo, a zippy little spikey thing with the tiniest of noses scuttle around in the grass with her keeper, showing us all how delightful hedgehogs are.  John and I were so moved by their plight for survival that we are now making a few adaptations to the garden to make it a hedgehog friendly place.


As John and I continued our strolls around this wonderfully natural place, I stopped suddenly, sensing the close proximity of a family relative.  I expected to see fearsome felines as I stalked my way to the Scottish wildcat enclosures, creeping slowly round the corner on my haunches, keeping my head low to the ground as my eyes darted left to right.  But instead of terrifying, the 3 quiet striped tabby cats with bushy ringed tails in front of me were really quite pretty and surprisingly small.  My posture changed to that of a confident moggy with a swagger in his step and a flick in his sleek black tail.  But my cockiness was soon replaced by a healthy respect when I found out that although they have pink noses and white whiskers and are the same size as me, their species dates back to pre-history and they are completely untamable.  Domestic cats like me are descended from the African wildcat and have developed a certain understanding with our human companions, but the Scottish wildcat is truly wild and walked this land for millions of years before mankind arrived or domestic cats even existed.  Even sadder then to find out that they are on the brink of extinction thanks to hunting and habitat destruction.  Once found across the British mainland, they are now confined to the Scottish Highlands and number as a few as 300.  The cats at the Centre represent pure stock and have been identified as suitable for a captive breeding programme aimed at reintroduction to the wild.  In the meantime, they are being well cared for at the Centre and I noticed that all the animals lived in paddocks and pens that reflect their natural habitats, the drinking water in every enclosure was clean, and it was clear that the focus of the Centre was the animals.  So good luck my little furry friends and I hope you prosper!

Shad does his first premiership rugby match

We strolled on to the sidelines with our rucksacks full of equipment and cameras dangling around our necks, a pack of photographers on the prowl, each of us using our eagle-eyed vision to judge where the action would be and plan the best shots.  The venue was the impressive Allianz Park stadium in London, home to the Saracens Rugby Club since 2013.  The site was developed according to best practice in sustainable building design to ensure a low environmental impact and is used primarily for rugby and athletics.  The main stand runs the length of the pitch and features 3,000 permanent seats, although there are also demountable stands that allow for a capacity of around 10,000 at rugby matches.  The new £500,000 artificial pitch is designed to provide the ideal playing conditions regardless of the weather and is high-tech stuff, comprised of 3 layers – a shock pad, a fibrous layer and a rubber and sand mix which gives the feel of natural glass.


The smell of hotdogs, coffee and lager drifted across from the tents as I lifted my head up to the sky, following the lines of the huge H-shaped goalposts at each end of the field.  The air was filled with anticipation and excitement and the growing crowd chattered eagerly as the LED banners on the stands and entrances flashed their messages to the spectators.  Everyone was in high spirits and the photographers were milling around, making adjustments to their shutter speeds and comparing the size of their lenses.  Suddenly there was silence, then the crowds erupted with cheers as the Saracens and the Worcerster Warriers ran on to the pitch, all beefy and testosterone-fuelled.


The game started and boy was it rough.  I had no idea what was going on because the referee communicated using hand signals and terminology I was unfamiliar with and the players spent half their time huddled together in scrums.  However I did witnessed a considerable amount of grabbing, pushing, stamping and grunting as the players leapt and barged their way around the field to score points.  Despite the highly competitive atmosphere, the crowd was friendly and looked colourful, with many fans dressed in creative and amusing costumes, faces painted to show their support.  After 80 minutes of roaring and body-slamming (and that was just the photographers!), the Saracens were declared winners 44 to 20.  Both teams played well and I could feel the exhaustion of the sweaty but smiling winning side as they firmly shook hands with the opposition and waved their macho arms enthusiastically at the people in the stands.  By the way, the whole match was televised and if you watch it back, you can catch a glimpse of me and John sitting on our stools with our cameras poised capturing the action as it happens.  John asked me to remind you that the camera adds 10 lbs!

Shad admires the Amur

This beautiful guy is called Bagai (affectionately known by us photographers as Baggie) and resides at Marwell Wildlife Park.  He is around 18 months old and the keepers are hoping he will eventually breed with his wife-to-be Milla, after they are introduced to each other later this year.  He is an Amur tiger (also known as Siberian tiger) and is characterised by his bold rusty-yellow colour with narrow black/brown stripes, short legs and long tail, and supple muscular body.


I have a strong affinity for my big-cat kin, particularly the tigers, because of their ongoing crusade to survive against the odds.  There are now more Amur tigers in captivity than there are in the wild due to two main threats – poaching and habitat destruction. They are poached mainly to satisfy the demand for traditional oriental medicinal products made out of parts of the tiger.  Some gruesome examples include crushed tiger bone added to wine as a tonic and eyeballs rolled into pills as a cure for convulsions.  Revolting and totally without scientific basis.  Habitat destruction is often the result of increased demand for land as the human population grows, as well as intensified logging and agriculture for economic reasons. Habitat destruction in their natural environments of the Russian Far East, China and the Korean peninsula has not only removed the vegetation itself, which affects the soil and water balance, but also removed a significant portion of the tigers’ prey species, making them hungry and less inclined to breed.  Other threats include urban expansion, road construction, mining, fires and inadequate law enforcement.

There are nine recognised subspecies of tiger. Of these, the Caspian, Bali and Javan tigers are extinct and the South China tiger has not been sighted in the wild for over 25 years. The Indian or Bengal tiger is the most numerous but it is estimated that the total population is under 2,500 individuals.  In the 1940s, the Amur tiger was on the brink of extinction, with no more than 40 individuals remaining in the wild.  But thanks to vigorous anti-poaching and other conservation efforts in Russia with support from organisations such as the World Wildlife Fund, the population has recovered in the last decade and currently remains at around 400 individuals.  It is predicted that there will be none left in the wild within the next decade if human-kind does not take drastic action to save them.

But fear not my friends, it is not all bad news.  Big cats are prolific breeders and, given enough space, prey and protection, tigers can recover and re-claim their status as lord of the jungle. If you want to help, check out the WWF website for some ideas, such as sending an encouraging postcard to the rangers, the unsung heroes who work under harsh conditions on the frontlines to keep vulnerable wild tigers safe.  One thing all humans can do is ensure that any items they buy do not contain wild animal parts or lead to the unethical treatment of wild animals. Check that your paper and wood products are certified, that food products use certified sustainable palm oil and that your coffee was grown in harmony with its environment.

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.