From basking sharks to Bechstein's bat: A year spent discovering Britain's rarest animals

It led to some up-close encounters that Charlie Elder will never forget

Charlie Elder
Sunday 14 June 2015 23:51
Charlie Elder with a smooth snake, one of the endangered species he encountered in his year of British wildlife watching
Charlie Elder with a smooth snake, one of the endangered species he encountered in his year of British wildlife watching

As exits from the sea go, mine is not exactly up there with Daniel Craig emerging from the waves in Casino Royale. Arms flailing, I drag myself into the shallows and crawl ashore – tugging off my snorkelling gear before staggering stiff-legged up the beach in my wetsuit, between bemused sunbathers and families, a red face-mask ring stamped around my eyes.

I slump down in the sand, seawater streaming from nose and ears, and desperately massage my calves as agonising spasms continue to shoot through the muscles. After two hours in the water, severe cramp has struck in both legs with such force that I am glad to have made it back on to dry land, however ridiculous I appear to the crowds enjoying a sunny day out in Dorset.

Surely now is the time to admit defeat – given that this is my fourth unsuccessful snorkelling trip to Studland Bay, a three-hour drive from my Devon home. And yet, although the odds of striking lucky are stacked against me, I can’t give up hope of finding one of Britain’s rarest marine creatures – a strange-looking summer scarcity that breeds close to shore amid the green tangles of seagrass.

As I hauled myself to my feet and limped up the hill to my car, I knew I would be back…But in the meantime, other warm-weather wildlife was proving far more obliging, ensuring the season of plenty was living up to its promise – just as well, given the challenge I had set myself. Fed up with watching TV presenters enjoying the best views of British nature, I had decided to embrace a long-held interest in the plight of our most threatened species by actually getting out in my spare time and seeing them, in some cases before it was too late.

A Bechstein’s bat

I had resolved to track down Britain’s rarest and most endangered mammals, birds, fish, reptiles, amphibians and insects over the course of a year: 25 species in all, scattered like precious stones across our land and surrounding seas. They ranged from the mysterious Bechstein’s bat and striking golden oriole to the elusive pine marten and Ice-Age vendace fish; and success frequently depended on being in the right place in the right weather.

There is no better time of year to enjoy the variety of life that is on our doorstep than during late spring and summer, when everything is out and about and it is a pleasure to go looking. And one solar-powered reptile provides the perfect excuse for catching a few rays on long, hot days.

With the disc of yellow on the computer weather-forecast matching the one rising outside my window, I had set out with a sunny disposition in search of the sand lizard, a scarce and threatened heathland speciality, joining Tony Gent of the Amphibian and Reptile Conservation Trust at Town Common, near Christchurch in Dorset.

We followed sandy tracks that ran through open swathes of heathland and, conscious that there were adders about, I was careful where I placed my feet as we beat a path through the dense heather and latticework of gorse roots.

Sand lizards tend to bask in patches of sunlight close to cover into which they can disappear in a flash, and every now and then I heard rustling and glimpsed something disappearing from view: a brown tail slipping into the foliage like a thin tongue retracting. Lizard-spotting can be infuriating. But Tony was looking further ahead for reptiles that we hadn’t yet disturbed, and after a while he stopped me in my tracks with a raised hand. Beside the path, where the dry sand slumped beneath crusts of coffee-coloured peat, a stationary female was soaking up the sun. Larger than the common lizard, she was covered in a smart, carpet-like pattern of dark brown spots with cream centres. I reached for my camera, but she was gone.

More widespread in the past, the sand lizard’s range contracted significantly during the 20th century, as suitable habitat was lost to housing, agriculture, forestry and leisure development, leaving just a few scattered dots on the distribution map. I was fortunate to have spotted one, even if briefly.

The fen raft spider

Tony drew his heel through the sand, marking the spot. Lizards frequently return to the same place to bask, he said, and we could come back later. Only, we didn’t need to. A short distance ahead, we came across a show-stopping male sand lizard: the poster boy of our heathlands, with bright green sides that shone in the sun. Like the female, he didn’t hang around to be admired, but dashed away through the grass, a bolt of green energy that left me buzzing. And he had good reason to live life in a hurry: a few metres away we came across an adder resting amid the bracken, watching through red eyes as we passed by.

Another sun-loving species took me to a slightly less scenic part of Britain: a rubble heap in the Docklands area of east London. The litter-strewn brownfield site is the only known refuge of a tiny urban warrior armed with “explosives”, which was believed extinct until it was rediscovered 10 years ago.

At only 7.5mm long, the streaked bombardier beetle poses no threat on a grand scale – but at ground level this rare insect has rightly earned its military title for its remarkable ability to blast enemies. When under attack, it releases chemicals from two storage reservoirs in its abdomen into a thick-walled mixing chamber, where catalytic enzymes prompt a violent reaction to occur. The caustic mixture of boiling chemicals is rapidly ejected from the beetles’s rear end in a spray that is capable of blinding small mammals and killing invertebrate predators outright.

Ecologist Sarah Henshall, of the conservation charity Buglife, is among a handful of experts who know where to find these little combatants, and kindly invited me to join her on a summer survey: less than glamorous work scrabbling through weeds and wasteland debris.

She carried a pooter – a jar with an attached tube that enabled her to suck critters into the glass container – and I was amazed at how low she got to the ground and how carefully she lifted rocks and replaced them.

“People do ask me what on earth I’m doing grubbing around on sites like this,” she said, laughing. “It can look a bit unusual.”

I helped in the search, stepping between piping, thistles and chunks of asphalt, and lifted up broken breeze blocks that lay amid the long grass. Former industrial land, where nature has been allowed to get a foothold, supports a surprising amount of diversity, and it was astounding how much invertebrate life was hiding at ground level. No streaked bombardiers, though, and after a couple of hours I was wondering whether I should ever have included it on my target list of rarities: it was too small, too scarce, too likely to have disappeared altogether.

With the clock ticking on the time left before my return train journey to Devon, I was worried my fears of failure might be realised. Added to which I had trouble locating Sarah, who was hunting so low in the long grass that she had disappeared from view. Expert entomologists are uncommon enough as it is, so it wouldn’t have looked good to have lost one on my travels.

Then I saw something moving and she emerged from the undergrowth holding up her pooter jar, calling out as she walked over: “Got one!”

How she found it I’ll never know. It really was small, but a gem of a beetle, with a blood-orange body and glossy green back marked with a little red streak. Even better, it was a female laden with fertilised eggs – evidence that she was not alone. And she was saving her energy, rather than trying to blast us through the container glass. We returned her to where she was found, carrying the next generation beneath her.

It wasn’t easy finding time to fit in lengthy trips around Britain in search of rarities. One of the requirements of my work as a journalist was that I actually turned up, so I had to devote weekends to nature-watching and used up all of my holiday entitlement as I journeyed to the Hebrides to seek out corncrakes and black rats, the Cairngorms to look for capercaillies (wood grouse) and Slavonian grebes, East Anglia in pursuit of Norfolk hawker dragonflies and fen raft spiders, and Wales for shrill carder bees and upland dwelling Silurian moths.

Disappearing at every opportunity, I was certain that my wife and daughters would be struggling to cope – though, incredibly, they seemed to be managing just fine without me. And I was sure that my daughters’ seeming indifference to tales of rare wildlife encounters was just an act. I mean, what teenagers wouldn’t be bursting with pride at the thought of their father successfully tracking down a rare newt or moth?

A a sleepy, adorable dormouse

Having said that, they would certainly have enjoyed the morning I spent on the Isle of Wight searching for arguably Britain’s most adorable animal: the dormouse.

With golden-brown fur, bright eyes and a famously sleepy disposition, this cuddlesome mammal has the kind of appeal that has made it a darling of the conservation cause. Yet its secretive nocturnal lifestyle, and the fact that it lives up among the branches of trees, means that the dormouse is not exactly easy to see.

I joined a survey organised by the People’s Trust for Endangered Species (PTES) in a bluebell wood dotted with special nestboxes put up for the dormice. Hazelnut shells on the forest floor provided a clue they were present, as dormice gnaw smooth-sided holes to get at the nut inside and the discarded shells end up resembling tiny clogs.

After checking dozens of nestboxes, the group finally came across one curled up inside and fast asleep, with its bushy tail wrapped over its paws. Dormice spend more than half their lives asleep, hibernating through the winter and saving energy in the day by dropping into a torpor.

National dormouse officer Ian White carefully lifted it out and we each had the opportunity to hold the cute palm-sized ball of fur – soft, warm and undeniably charming – before it was weighed and returned to the box, still snoozing and seemingly none the wiser.

As summer temperatures rose, a giant of the sea was breaking the surface in a bay off the Isle of Man, feeding on plankton trapped in the upper layers of the water. Basking sharks tend to congregate in three main hotspots: off the south-west coast, in the seas of north-west Scotland and along the western edge of the Isle of Man, where I accompanied licensed researchers from Manx Basking Shark Watch, collecting DNA samples.

A basking shark off the Isle of Man

Taking a swab from an eight-metre shark is no easy matter. It involves carefully steering a boat up behind, keeping out of its line of sight, and using a long pole to rub a pad on the slime-covered dorsal fin.

The calm conditions were perfect, and it wasn’t long before the cry went up from one of the crew: “Shark!” Terrifying and thrilling, the short, sharp exclamation slaps you round the face and sets your nerves on edge. And no sight stirs up fears and fascinations more than the simple geometry that accompanies it: a triangular fin cutting like a blade between two worlds.

Drawing alongside the planet’s second largest fish, and being showered with cold seawater as it headed off with a flick of an immense tail, was an unforgettable experience. Harvested around the world for their oil-rich livers, for shark fin soup and the Far East medicine trade, basking shark numbers have been seriously depleted, though thankfully they are protected in our waters.

A year looking for rarities opened my eyes to the incredible diversity of flora and fauna in Britain, and the natural treasures we risk losing. Though before I could congratulate myself on successes and think about packing away the maps, putting the midge repellent and sea sickness pills back in the bathroom cupboard and calling it a day, I had unfinished business to attend to in Dorset. It was time to don the wetsuit and facemask one last time, weave my way between the beachgoers, and paddle out to the seagrass beds of Studland Bay.

This time I was accompanying a team of divers – though from the surface, as snorkelling is the extent of my aquatic abilities. The water was crystal clear and, as I followed them, I spotted bass and pipefish hiding among the green fronds that carpeted the sandy bottom. We tracked left and right and, as time passed, they began running low on air and I began running low on optimism. It seemed as if this rarity would remain the one that got away.

Then, just as I decided it was a mythical creature after all, dive leader Neil Garrick-Maidment broke the surface and waved me over. A male “spiny” had been found.

The majestic seahorse

The spiny seahorse lives in low numbers around much of our coast, particularly hidden among shallow beds of seagrass, but is seldom encountered, and has declined alarmingly at its key breeding site of Studland Bay. Finding this enigmatic rarity was incredibly fortunate.

Actually seeing it was quite another matter. Sediment had been stirred up and I could barely make out the dark shapes of the team a couple of metres below. I pushed my snorkel to one side, held my breath and swam down hard through their rising bubbles, battling the buoyancy of my wetsuit. Only I couldn’t get deep enough and was forced to surface, gasping and spitting out seawater.

I had to calm myself and try again. Neil, who is executive director of the Seahorse Trust, guided me with an outstretched hand, and I was able to make out a thin upright shape crowned by soft spines amid the tangle of green fronds at the bottom. Was that it…? Yes!

It took two more dives, ducking down and pumping hard with my flippers, before I got a decent view. The seahorse was about a handspan in length, its pointed pipette snout visible and tail curled around a stem of seagrass. Serene and surreal, this un-fish-like fish, with undeniable poise, repaid all the effort.

The extraordinary sighting was among the most memorable in a year that was filled with once-in-a-lifetime wildlife encounters, aided by dedicated conservationists, in some of Britain’s most special places. I would gladly have started out all over again.

Charlie Elder’s adventures on the trail of Britain’s rarest and most endangered animals are told in his book ‘Few And Far Between’, published by Bloomsbury and available in bookshops and online

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