Dung beetles

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Day 22 of #30DaysWild coincided with a talk from Farming Connect, a government scheme that aims to ‘safeguard and enhance the rural environment’, whilst revitalising rural economy.

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Dr Beynon from The Bug Farm presented a fascinating talk on the economic and inherent value of dung beetles.

Last year I wrote a post about my (poor ) attempt at a dung beetle hunt on our farm.  At that point I didn’t spot any dung beetles, but thought I might resume the hunt at a later date. I didn’t think it would be an entire year later!

What do you think of when you here the words ‘Dung beetle’ ? If you are anything like me your first thoughts may be dredged up memories from primary school projects on the ancient Egyptians worship of these creatures.  Or perhaps you think of wildlife TV documentaries, with African Dung Beetles rolling massive balls of Elephant poo about.  Neither  thought  accurately represents the dung beetles that we have here in the UK.

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Dung beetles are a ‘superfamily’ of insects that practice coprophagy – the delightful habit of munching other animals faeces. Some live exclusively off dung, whilst it only forms part of the diets of other species. Members of the dung beetle family can be found all over the world, in habitat as diverse as deserts, forests, savannah and even UK farmland. The only continent free of these insects is Antarctica.

Entomologists have grouped dung beetles according to the way they use dung;

‘Rollers’create balls of dung, roll them away and bury them, either to use as food or somewhere to lay eggs.  None of our native  species fit into this group.

Instead, the 40 or so  dung beetles found within the UK fit into one of 2 other categories. Either they are ‘ Tunnelers’,  creating vertical and horizontal mazes of  chambers beneath a pat, or they  are ‘Dwellers’,breeding and tunnelling within it.

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The presentation took place on a dairy farm not too far from us. We listened to Dr Beynons talk before setting out to check pitfall traps that had been set by the farmer the night before.

The first few traps brought forth several ground beetles but no dung beetle species. In the next field Dr Beynon turned over a cow pat and immediately spotted several Dung Beetles. They were tiny – perhaps a third of the length of my little finger nail. Although they looked pretty similar to my untrained eye, Dr Beynon immediately began identifying which species they were. Another, larger beetle appeared in the sludgey remains of the pat. This, apparently, was Aphodius fossus. Bigger than the others, this beetle moved quite slowly and tentatively. Every so often it froze, tucking its legs up under its carapace in case danger was imminent. Whilst we were standing listening to each species being identified, the air around the dung was gradually beginning to come alive with beetles, flying in attracted by the malodorous faeces. At first I thought they were flies, but their flight pattern eluded to their true identity. It had an almost clockwork or mechanical aspect to it, and I half expected the air to be full of whirring and clicking mechanical noises as they alighted on the cow pat.

Once home again, I was itching to go and see if I could find any beetles of our own. The cows had been in the Quarry field the previous day, so it seemed a logical place to start my search.

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Within a few feet of entering the field gate my path was crossed by a rather large and shiny ground beetle.

A few more steps and I reached my first dung pile. Flipping the crust off, I waited patiently to see if I could spot anything. I was in luck.

Maybe it was beginners luck – I moved onto another pat close by – sure enough 4 beetles appeared, tunnelling through the pat, along with other ‘creepy crawlies’, flies and a few larvae.

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One more pat – I scrapped the pat close to the ground. Iould make out beetles disappearing down into tunnels. One larger beetle caught my eye – slower than the rest and sitting amongst the grass that had been directly underneath the dung. I scooped it up for a closer look. Aphodius Fossor. Jackpot!

My search wasn’t very scientific in methodology, but at least I know we do have some dung beetles present. This is encouraging. Dung beetles play a vital role in our ecosystem. If they disappeared entirely we would quite literally be up to our necks in dung . These beetles play a role in making soil more fertile and help to redistribute the nutrients in dung back into the soil. They contribute to improving water quality, undo ‘damage’ caused by grazing horses,help reduce green house gas released by farm animals and can even help to prevent livestock getting ill due to parasites. All this is quite a feat, considering they are only a few millimetres long!

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From this….

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to this…

Unfortunately, as with so many of our other native species, dung beetles have suffered massive declines. This is largely due to the overuse of and overreliance on products used to worm horses, cattle and sheep.

Dr Beynon, along with a host of other scientists, is hopeful that this trend can be reversed. In fact, they state that not only will it benefit the species of beetles themselves , but it will also benefit the UK farming industry financially, something which seems blatantly obvious when you look at the list of their ‘helpful qualities’.

If you want to have a go at looking for dung beetles (and you have land owners permission!) check out DUMP – a uk based mapping project. You can also see how to build a pitfall trap here. Happy beetling!

 

 

 

 


 

 

 

 

 

Day 17 – The little things…

This month hasn’t been what I planned. Ok, so I know it isn’t over yet, but recently  I have been worried that , if the first half has been anything to go by, the next half isn’t going to live up to my expectations either.

Since last years #30DaysWild , which pretty much marked the real beginning of my blogging experience, I have been looking forward to June 2017. What new things would I discover? Would there be new wildlife spotted on the farm? Will I meet more wildlife enthusiasts? But, like all of the best laid plans…it hasn’t quite gone the way I had hoped. My ‘weird turns’ are still occurring, and I still don’t know what they are. Despite being on antiepileptic medication, and I am struggling to enjoy normal everyday life the way I should. When I’ve had a weird turn, I am in pain and exhausted for hours if not days after. My memory is affected- I forget words, names and everyday data- like phone numbers and passwords. Its really annoying! Worst of all is not being able to write or read. I can’t concentrate, cant find the energy to find the words.From the outside looking in, people can’t tell how much it affects me. Much like my battles with mental health.

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Today I spent a lot of the morning asleep, and the afternoon looking after the mini farmers. By 6.30pm I remembered #30DaysWild….but I hadn’t got the energy to think up a ‘random act’, or the inclination to tap the random act app on my phone. Instead I just took the girls outside, let them play in the sunshine whilst I sat and watched.

My chosen spot was on the patio next to my herb patch. The garden in general is looking pretty wild and neglected at the minute, and the herb patch is no exception. The fennel stands at about 2ft high, its liquorice scented fronds covered with aphids.The lavender shoots are not far behind, and the lemonbalm has spread out horizontally.  The nasturtiums I have grown from seed are also sending their tendrils out sideways, and bursting into flower.  The bees adore them, and I sat watching as one fat white tailed bumble bee laconically gathered nectar from the gold and orange trumpet shaped flowers.

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Next to the herb patch is my washing up bowl pond. It didn’t start out as a pond, just a water butt to collect rain from a broken down pipe, saving me having to go far to fetch water for the plants. Now it is home to 4 tiny, still legless,  voraciously hungry tadpoles. From my vantage point I can see one flicking about on the surface, gulping air, before disappearing under a shard of terracotta i added for cover. They have cleared the copious amounts of fly larvae from the pond, and I cant wait until they grow up and start making a dent on the slugs that have decapitated my lupin, shredded my centaurea and are now waging war on my strawberry plants.

After five minutes of sitting here, and snapping a few shots of passing wild things with my iPhone I realised that actually, this is what ’30 days’ is really about. There is no set curriculum, no need for grandiose schemes. Interactions with nature can be small and simple – just taking a minute to watch a bee fly from flower to flower in search of nectar, or following a butterfly around the garden… and tick…task completed for the day.  You don’t need fancy equipment- my big regret last year was not getting good enough photos. This year the majority of wild photos are on my iphone. You don’t even need to be able to get outside, with webcams and wildlife books, journals or online courses. Of course you can go further afield, spend whole days immersing yourself in the wild or creating grander and more elaborate ways to complete your random act of wildness for the day. But you don’t have to.

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Which has lead me to realise. I haven’t ‘wasted’ this month. It has not been a ‘failure’ because it hasn’t lived up to the expectations I set from last year. It has been different. Small achievable goals are actually good- good for my mental health and good for my general health. Up until now, I didn’t think that my acts that I have managed on days when I haven’t blogged have been worthy of writing about. I didn’t think they were exciting enough, or even constituted a ‘random act’. I’m glad i’ve realised I was wrong in my thinking.

The ‘obligate carnivore’ in your kitchen- why cats need meat in their diet.

Recently I have found myself ‘engaging’ in debates surrounding veganism. Some of these discussions have centred around pet nutrition, specifically the choice made by some pet owners to feed their cats a vegan diet. Whilst I can fully accept and appreciate another human beings choice to abstain from consuming meat, whether on ethical or health grounds, I cannot accept the practice of forcing a domesticated cat to become vegan. This blog post came about from these brief encounters with people who are feeding or want to feed their cats a meat free diet.

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Cats as obligate carnivores- what does this even mean.

”An obligate carnivore (or true carnivore) is an animal that must eat meat in order to thrive ” (Syufy 2008).

If you studied biology at school you may remember that animals are grouped according to shared characteristics (taxonomy). Cats fall into the ‘Carnivora’ , an order of animals that also includes dogs, bears and seals. Some of the animals in this order are ‘omnivores’, meaning they are able to meet their dietary needs by eating plant matter. Others, like the domestic cat, are obligate carnivores, meaning they must eat meat to survive and, more importantly, to thrive.

From the shape of their teeth  to the length of their intestines, feline bodies are not designed  for consuming a plant based diet. Millennia of evolution along the line of eating a meat rich diet has meant that cat’s bodies have become ‘streamlined’, shedding ‘unnecessary components’ and creating essential ones along the way.

Dentition

Teeth are an obvious clue as to what cats are designed to eat.

Blatantly obvious clue number 1: Cats  have 4 canine teeth ( the long fang like teeth at the front of their mouths).These are specifically designed for catching, killing and holding prey. Not vegetables.

Blatantly obvious tooth based clue number 2: If you have a cat that doesn’t mind being watched , check out how they eat. Cats tend to use their ‘carnassial teeth’ to chew, pre molar teeth that are specifically designed for meat consumption . They act like scissors , making the meat easier for a cat to swallow. Unlike dogs, cats tend to have fewer molars, meaning they lack surfaces that would enable them to efficiently break down plant matter. The occlusal surfaces of their remaining teeth aren’t efficient for chowing down on vegetables.

Digestive enzymes

Moving past teeth and on to other parts of the digestive process lends further evidence to  why cats shouldn’t be forced into a life of veganism. From the very beginning of the digestive tract, cats have lost out on the ability to digest plant matter. Salivary amylase, a digestive enzyme used to start the process of starch digestion, is missing from cats mouths. Further down the digestive route (in the intestine) amylase is present, but at a mere 5% of the amount found in a dog. Other digestive enzymes found in a cats intestine point to their need for a meat based diet, as does their lack of the enzymes needed for starch digestion.

Picky eaters

Cats, even those on ‘traditional’ diets, can be very fussy when it comes to food. This is one thing for healthy cats, but can be a real problem in cats that are poorly. It can become a vicious circle of a cat that is feeling sickly not eating which makes the cat feel worse so it doesn’t eat. In addition cats that are carrying too much weight can develop hepatic lipidosis, a potentially life threatening liver disorder, due to becoming inappetant. Cats may not find plant based diets very appetising and start refusing to eat. This can  result in them developing further problems.img_6517

Anatomy

Comparing a cat to an omnivorous or herbivorous species will also show anatomical differences that preclude feline veganism. The length of a cats small intestine is considerably shorter, they only have a ‘vestigial’ caecum, and their colon is  much shorter than herbivorous or omnivorous mammals. All of these again point to a meat based diet and an inadequacy in terms of digesting plant based starch and fibre.

So ,  dentition plus intestinal anatomy minus key digestive enzymes equals…well,  doesn’t take a genius to see why they aren’t meant to live on veggies alone.

Essential nutrients

If that wasn’t evidence enough, lets take a look at some of the health problems that cats presented with meat free meals could develop. These problems can arise due to vitamin and protein deficiencies. The domestic cat’s evolutionary journey  has  thrown up a few quirks in terms of vitamin and amino acid requirements .

Vitamin A is necessary for maintain healthy vision, bone and muscles. Most herbivorous or omnivorous mammals can meet their need for  it by converting beta carotene, a plant pigment, during the digestive process. Cats can’t. They lack the enzyme needed for this, meaning they really on ‘ready made’ , ‘pre packaged’ vitamin a. This is easily obtained through eating animal products.

Methionine is another essential amino acid for cats, and deficiency is also possible when they are fed a vegetable based diet. Skin problems, especially around the nose are seen in cats that are lacking this protein.

Taurine is another amino acid (protein) that is essential for a cats sight, nerve function, immune system and heart. Carnivorous diets supply plenty of taurine, whilst cereal or vegetable diets have inadequate or minimal amounts. Deficiency of taurine can result in a cat developing life threatening and (potentially) deadly conditions such as Dilated Cardiomyopathy (DCM) and Feline Central Retinal Degeneration. In pregnant cats it can also cause the unborn kittens to be damaged.

During my recent conversations I have been told ‘ well, my cat is doing great on a vegan diet so far’, having only been on it for a few days, weeks or months. And the owners are probably right. The cats probably are coping. For now.  Switching  to a plant based diet isn’t likely to cause these diseases to develop immediately. In fact,  signs that something bad is happening to your cats health will only appear after a long period of your pet being taurine deficient (anywhere from 5 months to 2 years).

Synthetic forms of both vitamin A and Taurine are available, but relying on these to feed an obligate carnivore raises a separate set of ethical questions. In addition, the nutritional adequacy of ready made vegan feline diets has been questioned, with studies finding them to be lacking in essential elements.

Urination

Another health risk for cats, especially male cats, fed on a vegan diet is FLUTD (feline lower urinary tract disease). These cats can develop abnormally alkaline urine due to the plant based proteins in their diet. Meat based diets result in acidic urine, which is normal for cats. Alkaline wee provides the right environment for bladder crystals or stones to form in . These can cause irritation to the lining of the bladder , leading to  inflammation (cystitis) and infections,  pain and, more seiously , blockage of the urinary tract. Urinary blockage means a cat cannot pass urine, and without veterinary attention a cat will die .

Time to get off the soap box….

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At the end of the day,  I would advocate that any responsible cat owner…or human that  cares for a cat…or cat ‘guardian’ …  should seek to do the best for the cat. Informed choices regarding their care should be made, including what they are  fed . This should be done with the individual animals best interests at heart. If a pet owner still decides that this means feeding a vegan diet to their cat , the cat should have regular check ups scheduled with their vet, to ensure that the cat never suffers due to food source.

 

A different world

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Day 3 and we turned to the ‘ Random act of wildness’ app for inspiration, as Mummy was lacking any. Sometimes I love technology.

A couple of taps on the trusty iPhone later and we had our inspiration. ‘Lift up a log’ it told us…’Look under fallen logs to discover weird and wonderful creepy crawlies.

‘ Shall we go on a mini beast safari?’ I asked…

‘Yeah…boots..boots..boots…’ shout JoJo gleefully, and headed for the backdoor. C grabbed her wellies, put them on the wrong feet as per normal, and we headed off to check out the log pile.img_6911

At the back of the ‘wild patch’ lies the remains of an old chicken shed. The concrete base now houses our greenhouse, a dog kennel and a (currently empty and awaiting its owners) chicken coop, as well as a rather large log pile. We stacked the logs here a couple of years ago after some dead and dying trees were cleared around the farm. Untouched and undisturbed they have become a mini beast haven.

Turning over the first log sent several Brown centipedes scuttling off for cover. The millipedes were slower, with some not even bothering to uncurl themselves at all. Woodlice swarmed over each other, antennae twitching as they edged under neighbouring logs. The worms remained, wriggling in the leaf litter, along with two slugs that had been sheltering on the underside of the upturned log.

‘Put it back mummy, they are getting hot’ said C. Perfectly logical, as the sun was indeed blazing down over our little patch. I gingerly lowered the log, hoping I hadn’t squished any of the occupants in the process. After a quick check on the tadpoles that are living in our washing up bowl pond under the broken downpipe, we headed back inside as mummy was starting, ironically,  to burn.

Day 2 – Petrichor

TWT30DaysWild_countdown_02Torrential rain, memory loss and toddler tantrums. Not an auspicious start to the second day of our #30DaysWild, but as the saying goes, bad things come in threes. Once we had them behind us the day could only get better. With the mini farmers departing to spend time with relatives, the rain clouds rolling off into the distance and the garden beckoning I decided on a simple stroll around our ‘patch’; the wild, uncouth area that lies to the side of the farmhouse.

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Once upon a time it was a more formal affair, with carefully tended rose beds and well pruned shrubs. Nowadays, through years of benign neglect, it is a tangle of weeds. Until last June, I found it an eyesore, and started trying to tame it back into some semblance of a tidy space. But with the arrival of 30 days wild, I started to see it as something different. No longer was it a messy disgraceful space, but home to all manner of ‘mini beasts’ . It provides food for birds, bats and foxes. So this year I left it wild and let nature run its course. Today, with the scent of petrichor hanging over the patch I set off to see what creatures I could find.

I came across this Scorpion fly perched atop a bramble leaf . These curious insects earn their name from their long scorpion-like tail. They feed on dead insects, including those trapped in spiders webs. Like some spiders, the male needs to placate the female during mating with a ‘nuptial gift’, so she isn’t tempted to kill him.

Next up, some day flying moths. This male long horned, or Fairy, moth was sunning himself on a nettle leaf. This species has amazingly, bordering on ridiculously,  long ‘filiform’ antenna. In this chaps case they were at least 4 times the length of his body, with an apparent life force all of their own.

On a neighbouring clump of nettles I spotted a micro moth, which turned out to be the rather aptly named ‘Nettle Tap’ moth.img_6845

With all my crashing around in the path (even though I was desperately attempting to avoid being ungainly) I disturbed a Silver-ground carpet moth. This moth is nocturnal but easily disturbed from its daytime resting spots. The caterpillars of this species feed on Cleavers and Primroses, which are plentiful in the ‘patch’.
Not to be outdone, several species of butterfly were fluttering around the patch. Only this speckled wood alighted long enough for me to snap a quick photo.

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There were many, many more creatures flitting and skulking about the patch. I’m glad I bothered to let it stay wild. If we had mown the nettles, chopped all the brambles and pulled up the other assorted ‘weeds’ this little patch would be a whole lot poorer for it.

 

 

 

 

 

Day 1 – Etching and sketching

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June the first, a long awaited calendar date. The start of the new 30 days wild challenge. I couldn’t have felt less inclined to do anything ‘wild’ or ‘outdoorsy’ if I had tried. My head was reeling, buzzing with the electrical aftermath of one of my weird seizures. Any grandiose plans I had for that day had flown straight out of the window, and I resigned myself to a day of indoor R&R. With the mini farmers off visiting family, I did the only thing that helps following a seizure. Turn off all electronics apart from classic fm and reached for my pencils. A sudden light bulb moment- combine my ‘random act of wildness’ for the day with some art therapy. Pencils, paper and some inspiration gathered, I started to draw. I had an idea that perhaps, if days become too much and this is what I need to do to relax and recover, maybe I could work through sketching native British wildlife. First up, owls.

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There are five species of owls found in the Uk – Barn owl, Tawny, Little owl, Long and Short eared.

Barn owls (Tyto alba) are predominantly farmland birds.With their ghostly pale heart shaped faces and blood curdling call, it is easy to see how they earned their place in myth and folklore. They don’t hoot, rather hiss and screech, giving rise to their colloquial name of ‘Screech owl’. Small rodents form the bulk of their prey, with field voles being a favourite snack. It is easy to see how they became a ‘farmers friend’, helping to keep rodent numbers at bay.

Tawny owls (Strix aluco) are shy nocturnal birds. Their grey- buff- dappled plumage acts as perfect camouflage, blending seamlessly with tree bark.  During the summer months we frequently hear them call here on the farm; a single ‘kerwick’ acts as a contact call, followed by a ‘whooo- whoo’ if the bird is a male.

Last up for day 1- Long eared owl (Asio otus). Despite their name, these owls don’t actually have long ears. The tufts on top of their heads are merely decorative plumage, their ears being located on the side of their heads. Like all owls, one ear is placed slightly higher than the other. Combined with their round, flat faces this  helps them to accurately locate prey by sound alone.

So there we have it. My very own parliament of owls!