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April 2012: Wealth of wildlife in drought

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Wealth of wildlife in drought.

Wealth of wildlife in drought.

Wildlife artist Robert E Fuller reports on the drought in Yorkshire and finds the twilight hours reveal a wealth of wildlife as featured in the Yorkshire Post April 2012.

PARTS of Yorkshire have been declared a drought zone and there has been a lot in the news about the impact that this has on farming and wildlife. I live in Thixendale on the Yorkshire Wolds which is characterised by dry valleys punctuated with dew ponds. These small ponds are a real life source for the local wildlife which they rely on for drinking water.

All nature benefits from warm sunny days but drought conditions can be damaging for many species from the largest trees to the smallest insect. There is a real knock on effect from one species to another as they depend on one another for food and shelter. It's not so much that it is a killer like the extreme cold, but it really puts everything under pressure and makes for a poor breeding season. I've recently been involved in a court case about badger baiting that I had to give evidence for. But while I feel like I have been talking about badgers a lot of late I haven't actually seen a live one all winter. The clocks going forward mark the beginning of my badger watching year. And with the drought conditions in mind, I decided to visit the sett near my gallery one evening to see how they had been affected. Badger cubs are born in February, but don't come above ground until at least mid April or the beginning of May. I wondered how active the sett was in light of the dry weather.

Badgers rely on worms as their main food source. But worms go deep underground in dry periods, so I took some dog biscuits and water with me, thinking that the clan might appreciate this boost after the long winter, followed by the dry spring.
As I headed off I heard the sharp call of a tree creeper and looked across to see a pair looking for a safe place to roost. The Wolds are usually windy but there wasn't a breath of air that evening. The sun had already set but the dusky light was still enough to see by.

I always love this transition from day to night because you get the best of both worlds, being able to see and hear diurnal and nocturnal birds and animals in a short period of time. In spite of the dryness, the valley rang out with the sounds of spring. In the distance and I could hear the 'yaffaling' call of a green woodpecker, the haunting ring of a curlew and the rasping wing beats of a male lapwing and the extraordinary call it makes as it performs its dare-devil display flight. All these birds, which rely on worms and insects, need to be in tip-top condition for egg laying. Curlew and lapwing lay large eggs for their body size so this is especially important for them. Pheasants croaked out as they went up to roost and blackbirds made that 'chinking' call in the hedgerow below as they settled down for the night. I could hear the semi-mechanical call of a red legged partridge and wished it was a grey partridge, something I haven't seen in this valley for years. Just as the sounds began to fade I heard a hoot from a tawny owl announcing that the night watch had taken over.

I came to the sett and just 50 yards away saw a badger through my binoculars. It was scenting the air, its nose just emerging from the entrance hole. It slowly ambled out and sat down for a scratch. I tried to get a little closer, making as little sound as possible, but it was so still I could hear my leather boots creaking. Then a clattering of wings resounded as a flock of wood pigeons broke cover and the badger disappeared back down its hole.

I used this natural distraction to quicken my step and get even closer. I was just 20 yards away from the sett when the badger reappeared, closely followed by another. I could hear their muttering calls and watched as they began grooming each other. A barn owl broke the silence with its eerie screech. I have learned to mimic this and I returned the call. Out of the gloom it appeared like a ghost, swirling above me as I called out. It was a magical moment. The stars were twinkling, the moon was now up and the badgers were looking straight at me, their white facial blazes prominent in the twilight. The owl twirled out of the sky like a sycamore key and landed on a fence post next to me. I froze as it looked me up and down before flying off and landing in a tree above the badgers.

After the severe winter of 2010, barn owls have repopulated this valley. It's good to see barn owls back. By now there was a chill in the air and all of a sudden I remembered that it was still March and a frost was forecast. I headed home.

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