How the wild, wet winter has hit wildlife

Julie Hatcher

A sea mouse

Common goose barnacles

A washed-up dolphin

A puffin

Sally Welbourn

First published in News
Last updated
Dorset Echo: Photograph of the Author by , Reporter

THE wettest winter on record has taken a hefty toll on the county’s wildlife.

From goose barnacles to sharks, puffins and sea mice, beaches in Dorset have seen their fair share of animals affected during the recent storms.

The Dorset Wildlife Trust has expressed concern for wildlife battered by the severe weather, especially exhausted and distressed seabirds that braved strong winds and enormous waves.

As spring arrives in Dorset, Julie Hatcher, pictured above, the trust’s marine awareness officer based at the Kimmeridge Bay reserve in Purbeck, talks about the weird and wonderful wildlife found in Dorset off the back of the wettest winter on record and the impact of the severe storms.

 

Sea mouse

In February, Biomedical scientist Paul Harris was walking along West Bexington Beach when he stumbled upon a Sea Mouse, which can usually be found buried up to 6,600ft beneath the waves.

The rare creature, which feasts on dead animals and is covered in colourful hair, is actually a type of marine worm.

Sea Mice can grow up to 12 inches long and are normally found just below the intertidal zone on both sides of the Atlantic and in the Mediterranean.

Their backs are covered with bristles which usually have a red sheen but flush green and blue in a defence mechanism.

They are blind and find their way with feelers using small bristly paddle-like appendages, burrowing for dead and decaying bodies of other sea creatures.

Julie added that the species do wash up onto beaches but not often, because they are usually found on the sea bed.

She added: “The fact that sea mice have been washing up on Dorset beaches really shows how big the waves were during the recent storms.”

 

Common goose barnacles

Goose barnacles have been washed up on Dorset shores in the aftermath of the torrential rain and gale force winds that recently struck the county.

Goose barnacles are crustaceans that can usually be found on debris that has become dislodged from the seabed and washed up on the shore.

They are reportedly found in oceans the world over, except in Arctic regions.

Julie Hatcher told the Echo: “Goose barnacles are normally found drifting on solid objects or debris in oceans such as rocks but because they are oceanic, as soon as they leave water, including washing up onto beaches, they cannot survive.

“When we get these prolonged winds coming in from the Atlantic we get more things washed up onto beaches, which the barnacles attach themselves to.

“Many people are surprised to find them on beaches and people do not know a lot about them.

“Sadly, even if we put the goose barnacles back into the water after they have been washed up they are unlikely to survive.”

 

Dolphin

A dead dolphin was washed up on Chesil Beach and another on Southbourne beach in January.

Coastguards were alerted to another dead dolphin which had washed up at Chesil Cove in 2012.

The Dorset Wildlife Trust is urging anyone who comes across dead dolphins to contact them so that they can then alert the Cetacean Strandings Network, which enables research to be carried out on different types of marine mammals.

Julie Hatching added: “We do get dolphins washed ashore fairly regularly in Dorset but if people find dolphins or whales washed up, dead or alive, it’s so important they let us know. This is so we can go to the scene where the mammal has been found and alert the local strandings network.”

The UK Cetacean Strandings Investigation Programme (CSIP) has been running since 1990 and co-ordinates the investigation of all whales, dolphins, porpoises, marine turtles and basking sharks that strand around the UK coastline.

 

Blue shark or tope

In early January a family stumbled across a shark washed up on Charmouth Beach.

Nate Gillan, 10, was out fossil hunting when he stumbled across what experts claimed to be either an endangered blue shark or a tope, similar to the one pictured here.

The excited youngster ran to tell his dad Steve, mum Beth and seven-year-old sister Immy about his discovery on the beach.

Fiona Smith, of Weymouth Sea Life Park, identified the mammal as a blue shark or a tope.

Julie added: “Sharks are very vulnerable because they are targeted for fishing and often caught as bycatch.

“Also, shark eggs are different to other marine mammals in the sense that sharks only have a few and they are very slow growing.

“Neither a blue shark or a tope are endangered, but the tope is vulnerable and the blue shark is near threatened.”

 

Cow

A MAJOR beach clean in early January saw two tonnes of rubbish and a number of dead animals removed from Chesil Beach.

Concerns were raised for public health when Portlanders spotted the body of a dead cow among tonnes of plastic following a major storm.

Julie said: “Cows washed onto beaches is not common in Dorset – the most likely explanation I can offer is that the cow was in a field near to a river or a coastal cliff near the sea, and it was swept away into the sea and then washed up.”

 

Puffins

More than 100 dead or distressed seabirds, including five puffins, washed up on Chesil Beach on the weekend of February 8.

Puffins, which are a species of European conservation concern, breed at a small site called Dancing Ledge in Purbeck.

Julie added: “Puffins are not too common in Dorset – there is a breeding colony in Swanage but even then there are only a handful of them.

“All sea birds – including puffins – go out to sea towards the Atlantic.

“At this time of year they will be starting to make their way back on to the shore to start mating.

“But with the severe weather lately all sea birds must have found it very difficult to find food and must have been really struggling.”

 

Birdsong in hedgerows

As spring approaches, the roadside verges in the South Dorset Ridgeway Area of Outstanding Beauty (ANOB) from Bridport to Broadmayne are teeming with wildlife.

Bluebells, snowdrops, small copper butterflies and bullfinches can be seen flourishing on the verges, which DWT says are an important part of our landscape, not only adding to the beauty of an area but also providing a home to a remarkable variety of wildlife.

Wardens at the Dorset Wildlife Trust have also spotted the Brimstone butterfly and a number of bumblebees across Dorset.

The trust told the Echo that overwintering migrants such as redwings and field fares have returned to breed.

Sally Welbourn added: “There’s definitely a chorus of birdsong, which is usually heard later in the year, and many garden birds such as chaffinch, tits, wrens and sparrows are pairing and preparing nests for their new families.

“Some of the first of the returning migrants such as hirundines – the swallows and martins – are frequently being seen in Dorset, not just earlier this year, but last year too.”

 

• THE Dorset Wildlife Trust is encouraging the public to take small steps to help wildlife as spring arrives in Dorset.

Spokeswoman Sally Welbourn said: “For many species, the negative impact of the recent bad weather may be seen when population numbers have been recorded, but we have noticed butterflies already emerging despite the wet weather.

“Wildlife is adaptable, but meanwhile Dorset Wildlife Trust is continuing its work to provide good quality habitats. We do this by advising landowners on how to manage their land for wildlife and raising awareness of the importance of wildlife conservation in communities.

“There are some simple things the public can do in your garden to help wildlife, such as growing a long grass area, creating a log pile, or installing a pond or bird box.”

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