Canada: Scaling down

September 2018

There are days that you remember for the smallest possible reasons. I honestly thought it was a beetle, scootling across a forest road, but, no. It’s a mammal. The smallest mammal that I’ve ever seen in my entire life.

american pygmy shrew2 rmnp sept 18

It’s about the size of a £2 coin. Definitely a shrew, possibly an American pygmy shrew Sorex hoyi, the second smallest mammal on Earth. There are hummingbirds that would dwarf this bundle of whiskers and fur. Uncaring of the two-legged giants and their cameras, it predates invertebrates amongst pebbles that must seem like monoliths.

american pygmy shrew3 rmnp sept 18

It’s easy to see a forest in only the big pieces – clouds, trees, lakes. But this wonderland at the autumn-winter boundary continues to enchant with surprises.

I used to watch belted kingfishers when I lived on Vancouver Island. This one cuts a fine figure against Manitoba trees sprinkled with white.

belted kingfisher rmnp sept 18

And it is still full of seasonal boundary lines out there.

rmnp road sept 18

rmnp road2 sept 18

Afternoon brings something of a thaw. And with it, a welcome face.

bear2 rmnp sept 18

Not a particularly large bear, but I wouldn’t even like to guess how many shrews would equal the weight of just his head.

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Foxes, Cats and Occam’s Razor

Cat fox2

Or: why Sherlock banished emotion while solving mysteries.

Foxes have been in the news again, which is one of those things I dread. It is a mystery of the universe how a very small and mostly harmless carnivoran morphs into a ginger Cerberus whenever it encounters the tabloids, but to summarise:

  1. The UK has about eight million pet cats (RSPCA estimate). Sadly, on any given night, some of them are statistically likely to die, especially if they are permitted to roam outside unsupervised. The great outdoors is not safe for cats. There’s cat flu, feline immunodeficiency virus, garden pesticides, and most of all, the motor car.
  2. Foxes, which for countless millennia have consumed carrion left behind by wolves and lynx, readily scavenge on these dead cats.
  3. Somewhere along the line, an animal rights group examined the bodies and concluded that a very nasty human psychopath was beheading, mutilating and dumping cats to torment their owners.
  4. Social media spread this theory like wildfire. The awards for catching the Killer grew higher. Sensational claims spread on and on and on, including that the Killer had started stabbing foxes as well (quite how he hand-caught an animal that can leap over a six foot fence, run at 50 km/h, and will bite in defence if cornered, was never explained).
  5. Our beleaguered police got dragged in and spent years, and unknown thousands of pounds of taxpayer’s money, and discovered…that foxes scavenge dead animals.

As a fox advocate and ecologist, this sad episode is one that I could have done without. The media immediately leapt on the idea that foxes are hunting cats, which is not actually what the police said. The post mortem evidence quoted clearly shows that the causes of death were blunt force from a vehicle and the ‘mutilations’ (actually, innocent scavenging) took place afterwards.

For what it is worth: a healthy adult cat is at no risk from a fox, which is primarily a predator of voles, earthworms and berries, after all. Kittens and very elderly cats may theoretically be more vulnerable to all the risks of the outdoor world. But every day, millions of cats encounter foxes, and the normal outcome is for the two species to ignore each other – check out my video here. However, cats can and do attack foxes on occasion.

As a scientist, the lack of objective thought truly bothers me. It should have been obvious from the outset that something was very wrong with the Cat Killer theory. A five minute conversation with a mammologist would have confirmed that foxes and dogs have carnassial teeth that leave cutting marks similar to knives. The logical implausibility of the Killer evading so many CCTV cameras, pet owners and police officers should have rung alarm bells.

As a human being, I feel real anger that hundreds of pet owners were persuaded that their beloved animals suffered a miserable end at the hands of a violent criminal. Can you imagine if your grief was intruded on by a suggestion that a human monster had done this terrible thing to a living creature that you loved?

Facts, matter.

Testing evidence with cold-headed objectivity, matters.

People are often accused of wanting to believe that things are better than they are. But it is surprising how often we choose to believe that they are worse. In defiance of all evidence, many Americans and Canadians still believe that fishers are wanton cat killers (spoiler: they’re not). In various parts of the world, verifiably harmless animals such as little Andean mountain cats, aye-ayes and magpies are all considered to be bad luck, and sometimes are killed for it. I can name a town in British Columbia that shot five black bears one summer not because they were threatening anyone, but, well, it’s better to be afraid.

Sometimes – just sometimes – it isn’t.

Meadowland

I recently blogged my time in Romania, a country that still has sprawling meadows crammed with wildflowers. In Britain, we’re not so lucky; 97% of our lowland meadow is gone, swallowed up by the industrialisation of farmland.

The surviving fragments – that 3% – are often small and isolated. But some of those relics are magnificent.

North downs1 110807

Today is National Meadows Day in the UK – a celebration of those bits of wild grassland that we still have. I have some of the best meadows in England on my doorstep, some of which are protected as Sites of Special Scientific Interest or Sites of Nature Conservation Importance. Others are just sitting there, unprotected, which is not the most comfortable feeling.

What lives in them? Everything! Harvest mice, small reptiles, gorgeous butterflies, rare snails, bizarre fungi, and enough insects to befuddle my identification skills. I hardly have space to show all the flowers; a single square metre can host 15 species. Here’s a sample, anyway:

Pyramidal orchid

Pyramidal orchid2 23 Jun 2018

Bee orchid

Bee orchid S Tolls 31 May 2017

Meadow cranesbill

Meadow cranesbill 23 Jun 2018

Field scabious

Field scabious STolls 10 June 2017

Scarlet pimpernel

Scarlet pimpinel STolls 2 June 2017

Perforate St John’s wort

St John's Wort HV 4 Sept 2017

Sainfoin and buttercup

Sainfoin and buttercup 18 May 2017

These are places to walk softly and listen, and be dazzled by the sheer splendour of life.

Firebird

Fire. These forests are built on it.

Litchfield overview

It destroys, but it also cleans. Flames flicker in Australia’s Northern Territory in May – deliberate small fires sparkling under a thousand stars. To the minds of people, this prevents catastrophic wildfires later in the dry season. To the minds of birds, fire brings food.

Black kites1

Black kites swarm over fire fronts, seizing small fleeing things. Traditional Aboriginal belief claims that kites set new blazes by dropping smouldering twigs. It has never been scientifically documented, but if true would be almost the only example of fire being managed by something non-human.

Black kite2

Red-tailed black cockatoos hunt in the ashes.

Red-tailed black cockatoo2

And one of the bush’s strangest creatures looks after itself as best it can.

Short-beaked echinda LNP 30 May 2018

I met this ball of prickles as it waddled down a road in Litchfield National Park. Not a hedgehog, not like anything else on earth – it is a short-beaked echidna, one of only four species of mammal that lay eggs. It is also quite intelligent and can live for 50 years.

That is many years of watching the forest burn and regrow.

Travelogues

Rainbow

I’ve moved my India, Scotland and Yellowstone travelogues to this blog’s new Travels Abroad page. Hopefully Waterton Lakes (Canada) and Turkey will be on there soon too.

I am planning to write up my post-Opera journeys to Borneo, Poland and Romania (and perhaps Mexico) but will save reliving those adventures for dark and rainy November days.