Set in a fertile region the Wey Valley has always been rich in animal life and these mammals have contributed historically to the early settlement of the valley. Dominated for many centuries by ecclesiastical control the Bishop of Winchester also ensured that his forests were well stocked with hunting game.
Long associated with magic, spring madness and traditional meat dishes the hare has long been on the list of protected mammals.
In the Middle Ages hunters were convinced that the hare had magical powers so adept was it at outwitting them. They believed it could change sex at will and used its unearthly powers to outrun their hunting dogs. They've always been a popular animal in folklore and also in more modern times. Both Br'er Rabbit and Bugs Bunny were hares after all.
There are still large populations of brown hares (Lepus europaeus) around Britain and in the Wey Valley too, although you'll need to get off the beaten track to spot them. It is estimated that there are about three quarter of a million adult hares in Britain. However the hare was one of the first wild animals to receive its own Species Action Plan in the 1990s. The reason was not so much that it was about to die out, but that the hare's numbers were in dramatic decline and there were concerns that this could accelerate. For every hare outwitting a human today there were four only a century ago.
The hare can still bizarrely be shot without a licence, despite being 'red-listed' as endangered. A pressure group, the Hare Preservation Society, estimates that organised shoots can kill as much as 40% of the local hare population. During the main breeding season between March and July hare meat originating in Britain can not be sold or served up in a restaurant. It is also illegal to chase and kill a hare with a dog, although hare-coursing still goes on.
The reason why the government has stopped short of giving comprehensive legal protection to hares is the dilemma over what to do about hares in agricultural and horticultural areas. Hares eat farmer's valuable crops, and are especially partial to carrots (yes, it's true) and newly planted trees. They do prefer wild grasses and herbs but where intensive farming has taken over the countryside they've resorted to the alternative pickings available in the fields.
The Hare Preservation Society knows that there is a powerful lobby against the government imposing an outright ban on killing hares so has opted for campaigning to have closed shooting seasons between February and September to allow the hare to at least have a chance of maintaining its strength.
Hares are also suffering from chronic food shortages, and this is especially evident in areas where agriculture has turned over to intensive grain cultivation. Just at the time when hares need plentiful food supplies for mating and breeding is when the fields are full of grainless plants in the pre-fruiting stage. Many hares also fall to farming machinery, especially at harvest time. Hares have excellent all-round vision but their forward vision is poor, which is why quite often a hare will freeze right on front of you.
A hare can sprint at up to 45 mph (70 kmh) outrunning the top speed of its main natural predator, the fox. They have large hearts designed to provide the extra blood pressure needed for excessive exertion and they are also excellent swimmers.
The amusing sight of two Mad March hares boxing isn't actually male rivalry as is most popularly assumed, but usually a simple case of a female beating off an over-amorous male.
A saving grace for the common brown hare, native to the Wey Valley, is the fact that it is a prolific breeder. The hare is capable of 3 - 4 litters between February and September and a female can become pregnant again even when she already has a foetus on the go.
A brown hare typically has a body length of 20 - 28 ins (50 - 70 cm) and a tail length of 3 - 4 ins (7 - 11 cm). The weight for a full-grown adult ranges from 5.5 - 14.5 lbs (2.5 - 6.5 kg).
The Surrey Wildlife Trust is planning to construct otter holts along the River Wey at Guildford. The plan is to deploy recycled plastic lairs that have been installed successfully elsewhere in the country.
The holts will be equipped with tunnels, nesting and sleeping areas with the lair measuring 4ft by 3ft (1.2m by 0.9m) and costing £350 to install. The Trust hope to launch a prolonged camapaign to encourage otters back into the county and which will see holts installed in the River Blackwater near Farnham as well as in rivers at Molesey, Dorking and Leatherhead.
Only three visits of otters to the county have been officially recorded over the last four years with many having believed to been lost because of farming chemical seepage and road developments. As well as installing the lairs the Trust will also work to improve water quality and vegetation cover as otters rely on good covered areas in which to nest and rest.
Hedgehogs (Erinaceus europaeus) in the Wey Valley and elsewhere across Britain are dying because of the effects of global warming.
Conservation groups have reported that hundreds of baby hedgehogs have died due to the fact that the species, confused by the milder winter months, have continued to breed into the winter rather than hibernate. The deaths are occurring because the young hedgehogs need to feed and grow to a sustainable size before hibernating.
Hedgehogs born in late autumn are also finding less food readily available and then find themselves at the mercy of cold weather. Animal rescue centres all over the country have been approached by members of the public finding the ailing young hedgehogs.
Volunteers working for Surrey Bat Group are keeping a keen eye on the welfare of bats in the valley and across the county. They work throughout the year checking on local bat populations, looking after roosting sites and checking that planning applications being handled by local councils are not going to affect nesting sites. The group is part of a network of national bat groups that have formed under the umbrella organisation The Bat Conservation Trust which was formed in 1990 to reverse the 50 year decline of the species.
Bats are a protected by law in the UK and of the 17 species found in Britain 14 of these can be found in the county. The common pipistrelle (Pipistrellus pipistrellus) and soprano pipistrelle (Pipistrellus pygmaeus), which has a higher pitched call, are spotted quite often in the valley. They are brown in colour and about 1.5 ins (4cm) long with a wingspan of 10 ins (25cm) and usually roost in buildings. Daubenton's bats (Myotis daubentonii), also called water bats, are a little larger with a body length of 2 ins (5cm) and favour living in large colonies in tunnels and under bridges, with trees often used in summer for roosting. Daubenton's are distinguished by their dark grey fur and pink faces.
Of concern in Surrey is the serotine (Eptesicus serotinus) species whose population is on the decline. A large bat with a wingspan of 14 ins (37cm) and large ears the species favours hunting in woodland areas
Founded in 1996 by several members of the local Wildlife Trust the group's night-time walks are extremely popular with volunteers and members of the public who can go along and help with population counts. Walks are coordinated by the National Trust at Dapdune Wharf in Guildford and are led by members of Surrey Bat Group who provide guests with bat detectors that are designed to pick up the mammals' sonic chatter. The river is an ideal place to encounter bats as they particularly congregate over water.
Surrey Bat Group has around 150 members and runs monthly meetings and regular talks.
Volunteers check hibernation nests, bat boxes and take part in nationwide monitoring schemes undertaking the fieldwork, collating and estimating bat populations. Members who are licensed by the authorities to handle bats visit buildings where bats are reported and recover and care for injured animals.
The results of 2007 wildlife survey conducted by the Surrey Wildlife Trust have revealed that the Guildford area appears to have a healthy population of bats to the extent that there appear to be more here than in any other part of the UK. The survey detected more than 100 bats living in and around the borough. The survey, conducted using a hand-held device that picks up on the mammal's high frequency squeeks, successfully identified six different species. The highest sightings were at Dapdune Wharf and in Stoke Park Lane in Guildford. The largest number every found in a single place in a survey were the 36 bats found in Collingwood Crescent, Merrow in 1994.
The Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) announced (May 2008) that bats have been added to its set of indicator species which provides a measure of progress towards the Government's target of halting biodiversity loss by 2010. Bats, which with 17 species account for almost a third of all mammal species in the UK, provide a good indicator about the general state of the environment. As top predators of nocturnal insects they are sensitive to land use practices, development and building work, as well as changes in water quality.
The Surrey Wildlife Trust reported in December 2008 that an incredible number of bats were discovered near Elstead. The finding, as part of the Surrey bat survey, centred on a single bat box that had been installed by the group where 12 Natterer's had taken up residence at Thundry Meadows.
The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) has announced (February 2008) that it is extending the list of protected species to include water voles.
There are a number of water vole colonies in Surrey with at least two of these in the valley. Small colonies of around 10 voles are being monitored at Christmas Pie near Guildford and at Bisley near Woking. However their numbers are dwindling mainly due to threats from flooding and mink, which has made the news of extending legal protection to the mammals most welcome. It will now be a criminal offence to intentionally kill water voles or to damage or disturb their habitats. It will also be an offence to be in possession of the animal.
Water voles are semi-aquatic mammals that live in and around rivers, streams, canals and other watercourses. Growing to 5-9 inches (120-235mm) in length plus a tail of about 60% of this length they can weigh up to 12 ounces (350g). They tend to live in burrows excavated from river banks or in ball-shaped nests woven into reed beds. In the wild they have the relatively short lifespan of five months although in captivity have been known to live for up to five years.
The Surrey Wildlife Trust has an active programme of habitat improvement in place for the mammals which includes cutting back trees that overshadow rivers. A recent award from the Environment Agency has also enable the Trust to build mink-monitoring rafts in order to reduce the threat from this voracious predator.
Evidence of Otters in Godalming
The Surrey Wildlife Trust has been working closely with other wildlife and environmental organisations to improve the riverside habitat along the Wey. In March 2008 the Trust's otters and rivers project officer Chris Matcham came across evidence that otters have been frequenting the river through Godalming.
Otters are rarely seen in the Wey Valley so the find has stimulated a lot of excitement. With the work being undertaken along the river, sightings are likely to become a lot more common. The Trust's work in habitat restoration and water quality improvement work undertaken with local landowners and the Environment Agency, which is helping to fund the project, has been a long-term initiative.
The Trust is also actively working with the Farming and Wildlife Advisory Group (FWAG) and Wey Valley Project to improve the riverside habitat, and landowners are allowing access to provide safe resting sites.
Matcham has designed artificial otter holts which are sited along the river, and The Waterways Trust has awarded (March 2008) the Trust £4,000 to build five more, although this funding is to benefit The Thames near Teddington.
The Surrey Wildlife Trust and Guildford Borough Council have responded to a donation of £500 made by Guildford Golf Club for a dormice survey on the course by installing special nesting boxes for the mice.
Dormice, which are a protected species to try and prevent their continuing decline, are nocturnal and appear to have a healthy colony on Merrow Downs where the golf course is located. The mice are quite small for rodents with a body length of between 2.5 - 7.5 inches (6 - 19 cm) and weigh between 0.5 - 7.0 ounces (15 - 200 gms). Dormice, which breed once or twice a year usually producing litters of four, live in small family groups and are omnivorous usually feeding on fruits, berries, flowers, nuts and insects.
The club has also elected to return to traditional methods of woodland management and are installing a number of owl boxes around the course. Merrow Conservation volunteers have also helped in the planting of hazel trees and providing protection from deer.
Guildford Golf Club (GR: TQ034498), founded in 1886, is the oldest golf course in Surrey and is situated on chalk downland bordered by woodland. The elevation of the course provides a view across to four counties and on a clear day it is possible to see Canary Wharf and the City of London. The clubhouse was renovated preserving much of the character of the original Victorian building and was opened by professional golfer Peter Alliss in 1988.
A 36-strong herd of Belted Galloways has had two of its cows fitted with Global Positioning System (GPS) collars before being released on to the Ash ranges as part of an initiative established by the Surrey Wildlife Trust.
The collars, costing £1,500 each, allow the Trust's rangers to keep track of the herd in the 900-acre area as they graze to keep the abundant scrub and coarse grasses under control. The Trust's Grazing Project is intended to allow other more rare plant species such as sundew and orchids to flourish, as well as encouraging the expansion of heather which is important for heathland wildlife.
The rangers can locate the herd either with a handheld receiver which picks up the signals from the two transmitters or via hourly data transmitted to a data collection site administered in Germany.
The Belted Galloway breed originates from Galloway in Scotland and are renowned for being extremely hardy and able to thrive on the poorest pastures. Their striking appearance is believed to have originated from cross-breeding with Dutch Lakenvelder belted cattle. The breed was until 2007 on the rare breeds Survival Trust's watch list but when it was deemed to have recovered sufficiently from the foot and mouth crises in the early 2000s.
A breeding box that was installed over two years ago at a site at Chilworth Gunpowder Mills has at last been chosen as home by a family of dormice (July 2007). The box was installed as part of a joint project between Surrey Wildlife Trust, Chilworth Gunpowder Mills Group and Guildford Borough Council to encourage the endangered species to colonise the area.
The Trust is licensed to handle the species and undertook a quick examination and weighing of the box's inhabitants.
"We look forward to finding more families as we continue the monthly checks throughout the summer. Given the number of boxes, which total about 35, this site has so far proved to be the most highly populated one we've monitored this year," said Dave Williams, mammal project officer for the trust. "We plan to carry out some habitat management this winter to ensure the site remains attractive to dormice."
The RSPB's latest summer survey (2010) included a wildlife poll keeping a tally of mammals visiting. Domestic gardens as well as birds.
Foxes were unsurprisingly the most regularly seen with 64% of the Surrey 2,217 respondents recording visits by the animal. Other animals featured, with 5% of observers recalling moles, 6% roe deer, and nearly 12% hedgehogs.
Experts believe that the high percentage of hedgehogs listed in gardens is due to the fact that a loss of habitat in the countryside has made it increasingly difficult for them to survive further afield.
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