Otters live in encouraging numbers along the Lee Valley in Hertfordshire. But it is only by surveying for their tracks and droppings (or "spraint") that anyone can be sure, since the animals themselves are rarely seen. Graham White, the RSPB's Head of Reserves Ecology, made this his first practical example of the conservation value gained from studying animal excreta when he gave the 2019 Gerald Salisbury Memorial Lecture on Wednesday 27 November at Welwyn Civic Centre.
He described how his involvement in establishing the HMWT reserve at Amwell in the 1990s started his specialist interest in identifying and monitoring animal droppings that has since been put to good use all over the country.
In the RSPB's Abernethy Reserve in the Scottish Highlands, it helped him to locate an unsuspected population of Water Voles living among peat hags in the Cairngorm mountains. In the nearby pine forests he also obtained a prize specimen of the female Capercaillie's "clocker poo" – an outsize dropping excreted after days of round-the-clock egg incubation.
Graham also explained that a major application of his poo expertise in in surveys is to identify and assess the density of predators. Combined with camera traps, it has played a valuable part in ascribing a high proportion of wader egg and chick predation to Foxes, with Badgers, Hedgehogs and even sheep also playing a part.
However, in the Orkneys, the droppings found suggested that worrying levels of unhatched Curlew eggs were ascribable to three introduced species on the islands: Feral Cat, Hedgehog and Stoat. Elsewhere, Badgers were found to be responsible for the failure of attempted breeding by Spoonbills in East Anglia. Such evidence has led to successful prevention measures, such as the exclusion fencing that now protects nesting Avocets and gulls at RSPB Minsmere following predation by Badgers.
A 'Whose poo?' quiz at the end of the lecture led to some interesting speculation among the audience of more than 50 HNHS and Welwyn Natural History Society members. Hippopotamus is not (yet) a Hertfordshire species, so there was no shame in failing to recognise the final slide!
Special thanks go to Graham for his entertaining talk and to Tim Hill and Robin Cole who organised the event on behalf of the two societies.
Graham White (left) with HNHS Chair Peter Tallantire (©Tim Hill)