Highland Wildlife Blog – The Park’s Year Begins

May 8, 2014 § Leave a comment


By Douglas Richardson, Head of Living Collections, RZSS Highland Wildlife Park

Oystercatcher chicks by Alex Riddell

Oystercatcher chicks by Alex Riddell

In my last column I talked about the seasonal arrival of the range of wading birds that use the Highland Wildlife Park as an additional breeding refuge. This immigration of species is the key sign that winter is near its end, not that we had much of a winter, and the following signals from the resident animal collection are the indicators that spring is well and truly underway. Our animal collection, be it of Scottish or more global origins, has one thing in common – they are all cold weather adapted and so things only pick-up once the temperature starts to rise and the periods of daylight get longer.

Keeper Mark with white lipped deer antlers - 2013

Keeper Mark with white lipped deer antlers – 2013

All of our deer species have now shed their antlers and the date that each antler falls is recorded along with its weight and who it came from. This data collection exercise may seem fairly pointless, or at best of little importance, but if after some years we notice a shift in the trend, like with birds nesting earlier, it may be an additional indicator of a changing climate. One never knows when collecting data for the sake of it will end up being of some use to someone somewhere.

The thick winter coats that most of our animals grew last autumn are now being shed, and for some species, they currently do not look their best. The camels and bison are shedding huge pads of hair, but not all at the same time so they look like some deranged barber has snuck-up on them in their sleep.

The Easter weekend has just past, the traditional start of our main visitor season. We get visitors all year round, but now is when it starts with a vengeance. As a child, a visit to our local zoo, which at the time was Edinburgh, always took place every Easter Sunday or Monday, and I have always been interested to try and determine when the Easter weekend and visiting wild animal collections became linked in the British psyche.

For those of us that are responsible for the care and husbandry of the animal collection at the Park, spring is when we prepare for what has become a veritable avalanche of births. Some species are low maintenance and we just need to make sure that they are well fed then watch and wait. Others need to have suitable nest boxes put in place, or the male and female need to be separated as dad can view his offspring as a snack. The females of some species look obviously pregnant and in others the foetus is so small or the mum’s coat is so thick that there is no way of telling if a female is pregnant or not, but we need to have everything in place just in case. Others give birth in secret and we will not know for sure what has happened until the young appear at 3-4 weeks old as any premature checking can cause mum to kill or abandon her offspring.

Be it visitors or animals, spring is when it all kicks-off for us.

This piece was first published in the Strathspey & Badenoch Herald.

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