Friday, 24 May 2013


I love my job: I can be cleaning the loos one minute and shaking hands with Royalty the next! (Or was it the other way round? I did wash my hands in between.)

Covering the last bit of the liner. 
Yesterday was a day like that. The only fixture in my diary was:
"Meet with John Green at 10:30 to check Otter Holts"
My to-do list said:
"Don't forget to clean up the office".

Ranger Matt Hall was busy with the (sub) contractor on the job of finishing off the new pond, which left Ranger Rob and I to join our mammal-man, John Green in checking on otter holts. 'Back to that in a minute; but first, join me in my "Tardis".

A year ago I had a discussion with one of our week-end volunteers, Tony Booth, who is in the RAF. He expressed interest in getting the military to help us put up osprey nest-sites on Island Pit, but then he "disappeared off my radar" (as we say in the Raff, probably too often and not in jest.) This week he dropped in on us (as we say in the Paras). The upshot is that he has found a man in The Royal Engineers who has the skill, contacts, experience and most of all, the enthusiasm to see this through. I assume he also has the tools.

Back to yesterday (Keep up!) Tony, dressed in his best RAF uniform arrived in a big, clean Landrover with his colleague Sean from the Engineers, who was wearing the regulation "carp fisherman's pyjamas" and so off we went to Island Pit for a "recce".  Sean is confident we can do the job ready for next year's nesting season, as long as we can get all the necessary permissions in place. So that was good news.

Now for the otter holts. We have three man-made otter holts on the site that were funded by the St Neots Town Council some years ago. We try not to visit them too often so as not to disturb the otters but we knew that the roof had partly collapsed on one of them. We were able to check the second holt and found that it was intact but in need of a bit of TLC. No fresh spraints (droppings) were found at either site. The third site is inaccessible due to flooding at present. Our next step is to gather together the materials and schedule a meeting on site to do the repairs. At the same time we will poke around inside the holts with a camera-on-a-stick to see what's been happening inside.

Spindle Ermine caterpillars at Love's Farm.
Moving on to the "bag-worms" now, we have to skip back to Wednesday when my boss called to say that we had an enquiry from a lady on Love's Farm (a new housing estate on the edge of St Neots). She was worried about an infestation of caterpillars in the young plantations surrounding the houses. I promised to go and look; and so I did, expecting to find the place covered in cobwebs full of itchy, hairy caterpillars.

I did indeed find twenty or so bushes covered in cobwebs but they were all spindle bushes and the caterpillars were glossy and smooth. These turned out to be from a white micro-moth called a Spindle Ermine that only feeds on spindle bushes. I found them on the spindle bush in the Visitors' Centre garden too. If you go to the River Viewpoint, you can see a lot of bird-cherry trees that host a similar species of ermine moth.

Brown-tail Moth caterpillars at Love's Farm
So, I wrote to my boss and the lady on Love's farm and felt very pleased with myself..... Then she wrote back; this time with photos of her caterpillars that were definitely not from any micro-moth. It was time for a second visit, this time with Rob to act as my minder in case the caterpillars turned hostile.

Following the directions we were given, we soon found some more bags of caterpillars on hawthorn bushes and these turned out to be brown-tailed moth larvae. In the numbers present they offer no threat to the plantations but, so near to homes with young families, they may be a problem for people. These caterpillars shed their hairs, which can cause an allergic reaction, especially if you rub them in your eyes. We decided to rescue the caterpillars and take them to Paxton Pits.

I am sure this problem will arise again, but I think that, unless it occurs on a massive scale, removal is the best option. You can put that flame-thrower away now.

Trivia snippet: In the USA caterpillars are called "worms". Loopers are called "inch-worms" because they only have legs (pseudo-pods, actually) at the front and the back. They move an inch at a time by forming a hoop and then straightening out. Caterpillars that form cobwebs or nets are known as "bag-worms." In the State Forests where they have monocultural plantations, whole acres can be covered in white cobwebs.

By the time we got all this written up the day had gone. I never did get the office cleaned; Sorry.