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Every month it is our aim to highlight a species that is “in-season” and, although not necessarily rare or difficult to identify, has been highlighted by our local recording groups as being somewhat under-recorded and for which new records would therefore be welcomed.If you or your recording group are aware of species such as this then please contact Bob Foreman.
When we muse upon all things March, the mad hare has got to be up there. The Brown Hare is the most widespread of the two UK species, and the only one you’ll spot in Sussex. They are creatures of open country. Vegetarian grazers, occasionally indulging in a spot of browsing saplings. With a home range of some 50 hectares, their movement patterns track availability of fresh plant growth. Hares thrive in areas that provide grassland alongside arable land that incorporates cereals, leys, margins and winter stubbles; meeting their appetite for seasonal food.
Hares are naturalised mammals, and who introduced them is still disputed. Usually the Romans are implicated, although there are those that maintain their introduction pre-dates this, and they instead arrived some time during the Iron Age. Whenever they got here, I always get a thrill seeing a hare blazing its zigzag trail across the South Downs, nothing but chalk dust in its wake. If you’re still clarifying the difference between rabbits and hares in your mind. Did the ears have black tips? Hare. Did those amber eyes fix you with a slightly unnerving stare? Hare. Was there big air as it bounded away, propelled by long hind limbs? Hare!
Hares often specialise in the sit tight philosophy. I saw one a couple of weeks back, a just visible lump of primed muscle, long ears flat along its back. Waiting for me to get close enough. Adrift in the middle of a field, which on first appearance seemed stupidly conspicuous, this fitted with hares’ often used predator avoidance strategy. No danger of being sneaked up on here (unless Luna the Eagle Owl makes another bid for freedom). When you do reach their flight zone, hares often hold their tail downwards, concealing the white flag of its underside, as they beat their 45 mph retreat.
And the boxing? Two males sparring for attention? No. This is a female, telling an overly-amorous male to back off, as she approaches oestrus. Hares aren’t renowned for their parenting skills. A female can expect to give birth around 40 days after mating, with the first leverets usually arriving during February. As soon as they are born, the female leaves her young, indulging them with just a few minutes of her time each day, for just over a month until they are weaned.
A new threat has recently entered the hares’ world. Myxomatosis is already known to make the leap from their rabbit cousins, with the first confirmed UK mortality of a hare from Somerset in 2014. It now seems that another virus, RHD2, can also kill hares, being recently linked to deaths in Essex and Dorset. Anyone finding a sick or dead hare is asked to send a photograph of it to Dr Diana Bell at the University of East Anglia https://www.uea.ac.uk/about/-/uea-researchers-to-investigate-mysterious-hare-deaths who is researching hare die-off across the UK. The map above shows some of Sussex’s hare hotspots - the South Downs, as well as areas of grazing marsh, but highlights large areas with no records. If you spot a hare in Sussex please report your sighting to SxBRC, to make sure they contribute to Sussex Mammal Group’s new online mammal map https://sxbrc.org.uk/mammals/mapping.html#.
Laurie Jackson, Sussex Mammal Group
The Common Toad (Bufo bufo) is a solitary creature, spending the majority of its life on land buried in leaf litter, under tree roots, in log piles and in vegetable patches. Basically anywhere slightly damp where there is an abundance of invertebrate prey. However like all our native amphibians, Common Toad must return to water in spring to breed, sometimes travelling over 2km to get to their preferred pond.
Common Toad has dry warty skin and brilliant golden-bronze eyes with dark horizontal pupils. They are generally described as brown to olive brown, but colour can widely vary with some very dark or very red individuals. Additionally, a key identification feature are the large paratoid glands that stick up behind the eyes. These glands produce bufotoxin, an alkaloid neurotoxin that helps to defend against predation.
Common Toad have much shorter legs than Common Frog and tend to crawl or hop, rather than make large jumps. They also differ in their choice of breeding pond, generally preferring much deeper, larger bodies of water compared to the shallow pools where frogspawn can often be found. Common Toad-spawn is also very distinctive, being formed of long strings of a double row of eggs draped around submerged vegetation like a pearl necklace.
At this time of year Common Toad may be seen migrating back to their ancestral breeding pond, often disregarding any barriers that have appeared, including busy roads and deep drains. They tend to travel at dusk, most commonly emerging from their overwintering site after a spell of damp, warmish weather (air temp of 7-8°C). Unfortunately this can often coincide with peak car commuting times and scores of Common Toad can be killed as they try to cross roads.
Whilst, Common Toad is widespread in Britain, populations have declined dramatically over the last century and it is now listed as a Priority Species of Conservation Concern. Declines are largely due to habitat fragmentation and a huge loss of breeding ponds. However, the species is also generally under-recorded, so any sighting, especially of migrating or breeding Common Toad, is desirable. The map above shows where Common Toads have been recorded but also highlights the large areas of Sussex from which we do not have any records.
There are 44 members of the Pterophoridae or plume moth family that occur in the UK of which 30 have been recorded in Sussex. The smallest of these, with a wingspan of around 15 mm, is the Hemp-agrimony Plume Adaina microdactyla, although not rare it isn’t a commonly recorded species but is one that, according to County Recorder, Colin Pratt, is believed to be on the increase in Sussex.
The plumes are all small moths, with a wingspan of no more than about 30 mm. Their wings are deeply cleft or lobed into feathery "plumes", the forewing being divided into two and hindwing into three lobes. They have a distinctive resting posture, standing high up on their legs with their narrow wings overlapping or rolled up and held at about 90° to the body forming a "T-shaped" profile. Species such as Common Plume Emmelina monodactyla and White Plume Moth Pterophorus pentadactyla will be familiar to many, being relatively common and widely distributed species.
Adaina microdactyla is double-brooded, the adults, which when newly emerged are a pale greenish-yellow colour, can be seen flying from mid May to mid June and again from mid July to late August. It hibernates as a fully-grown larva in the dead, grey-coloured stem of the foodplant, Hemp-agrimony Eupatorium cannabinum, on damp riverbanks and places on the downs, and can be found throughout the winter and early spring. The larva feeds in the upper half of the stem often at or near a leaf or stem node. It eats the living pith during August and September often causing the flowers above the feeding point to abort. In thick stems there is little sign of feeding, but thinner stems form a swelling or gall. When fully grown the larva may overwinter in situ, or move down the stem and form a new gall as a hibernaculum. The overwintering gall will have a 1.5 mm hole in the side partly plugged with a pointed pellet of silk. To confirm the species split open the stem with a thumbnail or knife and the larva will be sitting in a flimsy cocoon across the width of the stem and slightly higher than the hole. The larva is creamy-white with a brown head 6-7 mm long and cigar-shaped. There is a broad but faint dorsal band of dark brownish grey becoming wider towards the head and tail. Keep the stems with larvae in an outhouse, slightly damp, and the larva will pupate when the weather warms up in April and emerge about a month later.
If you find any stands of Hemp-agrimony (maybe when you are out looking for Brown Hairstreak eggs?) spend a bit of time examining the stems for these tell-tale larval feeding signs. If you find anything, please submit the details with some photos to iRecord, or by email to firstname.lastname@example.org with details of location, grid reference and date found.