The Wonders of Spraint, Surveying and Slow Worms

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Over the last month I been on quite a lot of training, which has been really varied. One day I was learning about how to lead public walks, the next how to put up a post and rail fence, the next I was looking at how to look for signs of protected species.

Of these courses the surveying course was probably my favourite: for two days I learnt about protected species living in Britain, their ecology, how to identify them and how to look for them.

It was a nice sunny day and Sue (the lady running the course) took a group of us around some of Exeter’s waterways looking for signs of otters. For quite large animals otters are quite hard to spot….. Unfortunately I didn’t see an otter, and this is where the poo comes in. Droppings are  really good way to tell if a creature is living in a place. It is much easier to find signs of an animal activity by looking for tracks and droppings than it is to see them. Sue taught us to think like an otter, and look for places where an otter might mark its territory; a prominent rock here, a raised bank there. In the natural world poo is a really important messenger, showing territory boundaries and the health and sex of an animal – information which is important for breeding.

Once we sighted a promising specimen we were encouraged to get stuck in and look closely at the spraint (the name for otter poo) and to smell and touch it. I was expecting an unpleasant smell but oddly it smelt of mushroom pasta.

Throughout the course the poo theme continued. Sue has an excellent collection of animal droppings that can be used to reference the difference between say mouse poo and bat poo (a really important skill thing to know as bats are protected species and mice aren’t).

It wasn’t all about poo, the practical excursions to look for bats, dormice, badgers and reptiles were complemented by classroom sessions on wildlife law and legislation, basic ecology and life history. I found the legal side of the course particularly interesting and helpful.

One of the highlights of the course was finding a slow worm basking underneath one of the felt tiles we had put out to attract it. These incredible reptiles look like snakes but are in fact legless lizards!

I’m looking forward to using these skills on the Active Neighbourhoods sites. I will let you know if I spot any protected species in my next blog!

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