To diverge from our typically seal-oriented posts, we’re happy to tell you a bit about another project that is being conducted in our lab by Hagen, a first year PhD student. Hagen is looking at the behaviour, spatial usage and effects of human visitors on Red Deer on ‘Ulva’, a small island in the Scottish Hebrides. Ulva is a particularly spectacular place. Compared to the single species focus we typically have when watching seals during the breeding season, Ulva is a biodiversity hotspot where with a trained eye, you can’t go a few steps without stopping to look at a bird or a frog or butterfly (though it does also have a nice population of harbor seals (or common seals if you prefer: Phoca vitulina)).
Hagen of course is most interested in the population of Red Deer that are on the island: how they move, forage, form groups and help shape the habitats for other species such as butterflies and moths. After a long 6 months cooped up in the office, Hagen set off two weeks ago for his first field season. Taking another masters student from Durham with for assistance, the two spent their first week getting to know the study site in the best way possible–walking around the entire island! A week later, Sean and Amy arrived to help with the set up of some of Hagen’s experiments. This mainly consisted of lugging heavy timbers and deer fencing up and down steep cliffs, and certainly resulted in a few hammered fingers. While it was hard work, the extra hands made for speedy progress and they were happy to report the view was well worth the struggle (definitely an improvement from the windowless offices we’ve been constrained to since our own field-work ended).
After a week the three of us left Hagen in high spirits and returned to Durham. Hagen will stay for another 4 weeks, and is now starting to do the most important part of any behavioural study: getting to know his animals. Many people think animal behaviour is all high-energy action behaviours (as seen on David Attenborough programs) when, as we’ve mentioned before, truly understanding your animals requries understanding that 90% of the time you will be watching them sleep or eat or just walking. These careful observations of the ‘less exciting behaviours’ helps us determine the subtle differences and behaviours that will lead to meaningful research questions. After a few weeks of watching quietly, Hagen will definitely have a great start to his project!