Thriving mammals at Sherborne Park
The Sherborne Park Estate is a diverse habitat for wildlife in the Cotswolds. From farmland and water birds to the insects, amphibians and mammals that call the two rivers home.
A riverside home
The river corridors at Sherborne are secluded so there is very little disturbance to the otter's habitat. There is also a good amount of variable bankside vegetation including plenty of trees and shrubs. Vegetation is good for cover when the otters are moving around their range. It also provides lots of opportunities for underground holts between roots and above ground ‘couches’, where otters rest during the day.
The river supports enough fish and other aquatic life to sustain the otter’s feeding habits. The neighbouring water meadow, which is a complex network of ditches, provides a good system for movement around the site and may well harbour good numbers of frogs and toads that sustain the otters in leaner times.
Spotting otters can be notoriously difficult. Simon Nicholas, Countryside Manager of the estate, recalls the first time he saw one at Sherborne, it was in fact thanks to technology more than anything.
‘The first time I saw an otter at Sherborne was on a camera trap we set up on the estate. I’m still waiting to catch my first glimpse of one with my own eyes!’
The team at Sherborne can still successfully monitor the mammals. The rangers keep a look out for spraints, otter droppings, which have a very distinct smell which is likened to jasmine tea. Other signs include footprints and otter slides; tell-tale signs of an otter’s favourite points to enter the water.
With BBC Springwatch calling Sherborne it’s home for the next year, Simon is excited to see how the abundance of cameras and tech will help them track more water mammals. ‘I think in terms of helping, it will be a renewed and rejuvenated effort on the otter’s behalf. The more we know, the more we will be able to do to protect and enhance their habitat.’
Speaking of spotting otters, that’s nothing in comparison to looking for water voles, whose numbers have been declining over the past few years.
Spring and early summer are the best times of year for actually seeing a water vole. Earlier in the year means there is less vegetation growth so in theory they should be easier to spot.
Looking along the banks for their burrows or signs of feeding and droppings will give away their territory. Simon says ‘their droppings are odourless and about the size of tic-tacs and rounded at the ends. If you found a pile, then you’ve found a latrine and you’ve found water voles!’
Water voles also eat in a distinctive way. They chew vegetation to leave a neat 45 degree angle. If you find any of these sings then it’s a case of waiting quietly and patiently in the hope that you’re lucky enough for one to show up.
Keep your ears open too – if you hear a ‘plop’ then you may have just heard a water vole dropping into the water.
Conservation of water voles at Sherborne
We don’t currently know a huge amount about the breeding patterns of water voles at Sherborne. The slow rate of decline of these mammals is something the team has been tackling. Another successful example of reintroduction is the water voles at Malham Tarn in North Yorkshire.
Simon and the team will continue to look at this over the next few years as part of wider wildlife conservation at Sherborne Park. They will move to extend the areas of suitable habitat along the river and brook through appropriate management. They hope to increase buffer zones which protect the water voles' habitat and feeding ground as well as protecting the river and all the other species that rely on it.
It’s also vital to be doing more monitoring and surveying to make sure we know what is happening along the river. The work to date, including physical habitat management and monitoring, has been supported by Gloucestershire Wildlife Trust who continue to support the team at Sherborne.
By visiting the Sherborne Park Estate you help the countryside team look after these habitats for the wildlife that continues to thrive there.