We are extremely fortunate to have many wonderful species of wildlife right on our doorstep, here in Galloway.
If you’re lucky, patient and time it right, you too could catch a glimpse of Red Squirrels, Black Grouse, Red Deer, Otters and sometimes Nightjars (to name but a few). However, it is very unlikely that you will be lucky enough to be graced by their presence all in the same day!
Red squirrel (Sciurus vulgaris)
Red squirrels build large nests, called dreys, which are often built in the forks of tree trunks. They are usually solitary, only coming together to mate, yet they do not mind social interactions and related squirrels will share dreys to keep warm during cold winter months. Reds are capable of ranging quite widely, especially when looking for mates.
Red squirrels produce young, called kittens, in the spring and can reproduce a second time in the summer, but only in optimum conditions. Watch out for courtship displays in the trees! Normally females have between two and three kittens, but litters can range up to six young, which are born between 45-48 days after mating. It is the females that bring up the young and are they are very territorial over their brood.
Between 20 and 50 per cent of kittens manage to survive to adulthood. Young Red Squirrels are weaned off their mother's milk after about 8 - 12 weeks, once they have managed to develop a complete set of teeth.
Red squirrels are seed eaters, yet they tend favour pine cones. However they do also eat larch and spruce. Their diet also includes fungi, shoots and fruits of shrubs and trees, and sometimes even birds' eggs. They can choose between good and bad nuts by holding them in their paws. Reds do not hibernate and instead, store fungi in trees to eat over the winter months. When food is plentiful, they put on weight in the autumn to help them through the winter. This is important for breeding females, so that they are in good condition for producing young.
The main threats to the survival of the Reds are the increasing and worrying number of grey squirrels, disease (squirrel poxvirus) and road traffic. Greys can feed more efficiently in broadleaved woodlands and can survive at densities of up to 8 per hectare. The density of reds is up to 1 per hectare in broadleaved woodland but can be as low as 0.1 per hectare in coniferous woodland.
The main predators of Red Squirrels are birds of prey, such as Goshawks, but also from the likes of Pine Martens. In some urban areas, such as Jersey, domestic cats are also a threat when Squirrels go into gardens to feed.
Red squirrels usually have russet red fur, although coat colour can vary with some reds appearing very grey (and some grey squirrels can have red fur down their backs and on their feet). They are small with ear tuffs - large tuffs in winter - while grey squirrels are stockier and rounder. There is little difference between males and females, which makes it difficult to distinguish between the sexes.
Red squirrels are very elusive and spend much of their time in the tree canopy. Tell tale signs to look for include large dreys (nests) in trees, scratch marks on bark, and chewed pine cones that look like chewed apple cores. The 'chuk chuk' noise is a vocalisation used often not just when frightened. The foot tapping - perhaps better to say when agitated as they do it when angry, not happy - if they are frightened they've probably disappeared by then.
How we manage our woods:
The survival of the red squirrel may depend on the design and management of conifer forests, their preferred habitat. We are working with partners in projects across Britain to assess ways of designing and managing forests to develop a long term strategy that deters Greys and encourages Reds. Current work includes the Northumberland Kielder Forest Project, in partnership with the Mammals Trust UK and Newcastle University.
Black grouse (Tetrao tetrix)
Black grouse range over uplands from Wales to North Scotland, but their distribution has contracted by 28% since the 1970s. They are found on moorland edges, where the moor meets grassy fields used for rough grazing and areas of scrubby willow, birch and conifer woodland.
Greyhens are solely responsible for hatching and rearing the young. The nest is usually on the ground, but it can be low in a bush in the old nest of another species. Greyhens normally lay between 8 and 10 eggs from mid May. The eggs are incubated for about 24 days. Chicks leave the nest within days of hatching and can fly when they are around one month old. The Blackcock plays no part in the chick's upbringing.
Black grouse feed on the buds and shoots of trees and shrubs, as well as berries and seeds. Young chicks tend to feed solely, at first, on insects.
The Black Grouse population has been declining rapidly in recent years and this is largely linked to changes in land use, such as more intensive grazing and pasture improvement in the uplands.
The Blackcock is a handsome, all-black bird with a red comb and white under tail coverts. It is about the same size as a hen. The Greyhen is slightly smaller and mottled, with paler brown barring above and darker brown barring on the under parts. The Greyhen has a short, shallowly forked tail, about 41 cm long.
How we manage our woods:
We identify woods where the Black Grouse is found and make sure that the forest design plans allow for a sequence of tree felling and replanting to provide suitable habitat and food supply for the birds. We also manage work programmes to avoid disturbing nesting sites during the breeding season. Currently we are working closely with a range of partners, including the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, the British Trust for Ornithology and the UK Biodiversity Action Plan Black Grouse Steering Group to ensure the survival of the Black Grouse.
Red deer (Cervus elaphus)
Red Deer originally lived on the edges of woodland areas, but the large scale reduction in tree cover in Britain over the centuries has forced them to adapt to life on the open hill.
Woodland Red Deer hinds (females) can breed at 16 months old. Smaller hill deer may not reach sexual maturity until they are as old as two or even three years old. The mating season, known as the rut, begins in mid September and continues well in to late October. Hinds normally give birth to single calves from late May to June. Twins are sometimes born, but they are extremely rare.
Red deer are herbivores and graze a wide variety of plants, from grasses and heather to shrubs and trees.
Natural predators, such as Bears, Lynx and Wolves, are all now extinct in Britain, however, Eagles and Foxes occasionally prey on very young calves. When numbers of Red Deer become too great for their habitat to support them, they can have a detrimental impact on plant species diversity and can cause damage to agriculture and forestry. They can also suffer from sickness and disease. Today, Forestry Commission wildlife rangers are managing deer populations sensitively and humanely.
Red Deer are red-coloured in summer, but in the winter months, this changes to a greyish brown. Stags are easily identified by their large antlers.
How we manage our woods:
Red Deer range widely and the Forestry Commission is working closely with neighbouring landowners and partners including the British Deer Society, Association of Deer Management Groups and The Deer Initiative to manage deer populations.
Otter (Lutra lutra)
The otter's main habitat is along the sea shore and the banks of rivers, lakes and streams. They are territorial and usually, their territories can cover up to between one and three km along the sea shore and between five and twenty km along freshwater rivers and lakes. Otters do not migrate and live in their territories all year round.
Males (dogs) and females (bitches) first breed when they reach 2 years old. There is no breeding 'season', although in some areas breeding has been seen to take place in spring. It largely depends on the availability of food and habitat. In the wild, an average of one or two young are born in each litter and in the wild, an average of one to two young survive to adulthood. Males and females become independent when they reach 18 months.
Otter's main food is small fish and crabs, but they are carnivores and will eat almost anything that is easy to catch, including birds both on the water and the shore, small mammals and larger fish, such as dogfish.
Otters have no main predator and are instead, at the top of their food chain, as they are predators themselves, hunting fish, small mammals and birds. The main threat, however, to Otters is that from humans, through the destruction of their habitats, "run-off" from farmland pesticides, polluting watercourses, and from being run over by vehicles while crossing roads and paths.
Otters are about the size of a small dog. While their coat is mainly brown, they do have a lighter brown bib with small ears and eyes on a flattish head. Otters run with a lolloping gait on land, and hold their long thick tapering tail off the ground. They swim very flat on the water surface and when they dive their long tail flips over and can be seen clearly. Otters have a high pitched squeak when calling to other otters and a whickering, loud angry chatter when threatening.
How we manage our woods:
We are working to gradually restore suitable Otter habitat by clearing river banks and the shore line of dense overgrown vegetation. There are Otter breeding programmes in Britian that will lead to the eventual reintroducton of cubs into suitable habitats.
Nightjar (Caprimulgus europaeus)
Nightjars migrate to Britain from Africa annually and return there after rearing their chicks. They arrive in the south of England, their main stronghold, in April and in the north of England and central Scotland in May and early June. Nightjar traditionally nest in lowland heath. They prefer areas with scrubby vegetation and the occasional taller tree to 'churr' from, and usually avoid moorland managed for Red Grouse and Sheep. Adult pairs need a minimum of 2 hectares to nest, but they may fly between two and three kilometres to feed. Nightjar also like forestry plantations, nesting on 'clear fell' sites - where all the trees have been cut down - and on replanted areas, until the trees are around 15 years old. These new heaths provide good nesting cover, plenty of perches and an abundant food supply. At night, radio-tracked birds have been recorded leaving their territories to feed in other habitats, such as deciduous woodland and wet pasture.
Nightjar first breed when they are 1 year old. Nesting begins in May in the south of Britain and in late May/June, in the north. There are usually 2 eggs in a clutch, and on average, between 1 and 2 birds leave the nest. Young Nightjars become independent just over one month after hatching.
Nightjars feed mainly on the larger moths. They arrive in Britain in late spring and early summer when the moth population explodes. They are most active at the same times of day as moths, at dawn and dusk.
Like many ground nesting birds, Nightjars have their nests attacked by predators such as Foxes and Stoats, and Crows and Magpies. Adders use Nightjar nest platforms for basking and take eggs and small young birds. But these predators do not pose a serious threat to a successful breeding population. The main threat to the species comes from loss of habitat - a reduction in the area of lowland heath or changes in forestry practice that do not recognise the importance of clear felled and replanted forest. Moths can also be affected by pesticide use and a major reduction in moth numbers will affect the Nightjar population.
Nightjars are rarely seen during daylight. They remain motionless on the ground, relying on their amazing camouflage - feather patterns that look like dead leaves and old tree bark - to avoid detection. But at night when they are 'churring', they usually perch on the branch of a prominent tree and can be picked out against the night sky. When flying, Nightjars swoop and flap around their territories, often coming very close to any observers. Males have prominent white markings on the wings and tail, and females have brown markings that are much less prominent. These stand out even at night, so it is often possible to identify the bird's sex. People most often encounter the Nightjar's distinctive sound. Males perform a prolonged churring call ('nightjar' means night-churr) that may go on for several minutes, varying in pitch and volume. Hear the call here. When the birds stop churring, they are often in flight and two other sounds are frequently heard. The first is a rather soft 'coohwick' given as a single note and thought to be a contact call. The second is a slapping or hand-clapping sound caused as the birds clap their wings in flight
How we manage our woods:
All Forestry Commission woods have design plans. These help us create long-term objectives and targets for the future. With the help of local enthusiasts, we are able to identify forests where Nightjars occur and make sure that plans allow for a sequence of clear felling and replanting, providing suitable habitat and food supply.