Category Archives: Natural History

The polecat comeback

Object of the Month – February 2019

The European polecat, Mustela putorius, was thought to be extinct in Essex since 1880 thanks to persecution from gamekeepers. The first modern sighting was in 1999 near Wendens Ambo and there are now numerous records from north-west Essex, though only from roadkill specimens.

A mounted polecat skin from 1842 and a polecat skull, also from the 1800s.

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A bit behind the scenes

An update from James Lumbard, Natural Sciences Officer.

The Geology Gallery received a lot of attention in the run-up to the festive period thanks in no small part to the help provided by Cali, the latest addition to the natural sciences volunteer team. After a short training session in how to carefully clean specimens using a conservation vac and a paintbrush, we were away, and have already cleaned around half of the objects on display at the time of writing. It should be a fairly quick job to finish the rest of the objects in the ‘table-top’ display cases, leaving only a dozen or so in wall-mounted cases. This is part of regular ‘deep cleans’ that help care for museum objects, and will help us double-check and update the information we hold about each object. Many museums are also ‘Accredited’ which means that they uphold certain national standards of collection care, and this work contributes to Saffron Walden Museum maintaining its Accredited status year-on-year. Meanwhile, the photos we take can be used for everything from social media to encouraging researchers to visit the collection.

Fossil ammonite found in Saffron Walden. 150-200 million y.o.

At the start of December I visited the Essex Field Club’s (EFC) annual exhibition and social at Wat Tyler Country Park, near Basildon. The EFC is a volunteer-run society of amateurs and professionals who compile and look after a county-wide database of the wildlife and geology of Essex. The club’s secretary, Fiona Hutchings, very kindly introduced me to members from each specialty so I could speak to them about the natural sciences exhibition this summer, called Take Away the Walls. My plan is to hold a museum-based exhibition showcasing the wildlife of north-west Essex, and to run activities bringing together wildlife organisations and community groups across Uttlesford to help people enjoy the outdoors in new ways that will benefit their own health, and the health of the local environment. The exhibition and activities will really start to take shape behind the scenes soon, so keep your eyes peeled for more updates in the coming months.

Fossil bryozoan in flint. Tiny bryozoa live in coral-like colonies (above), but are much more complex internally.

At the end of this month I will be attending a short training seminar entitled ‘Finding Funds for Fossils, Ferns and Flamingos’, hosted by the Natural Sciences Collections Association (NatSCA) at the World Museum, Liverpool. NatSCA are a nationwide ‘subject-specialist network’ of museum professionals working in the natural sciences who have an active programme of meetings, training courses and conferences throughout the year. This particular event is all about how to successfully attract funding and support to care for and promote natural sciences collections in museums, and I look forward to putting my new-found knowledge into use to benefit the tens of thousands of natural sciences specimens at Saffron Walden Museum.

Object of the Month -September 2018

September’s Object of the Month is a collection of fossilised teeth chosen by James Lumbard, Natural Sciences Officer.

These fossilised teeth come from the extinct fish Ptychodus (pronounced tie-co-duss) which lived across the Americas, Europe and Asia. They are closely related to modern sharks and rays, but may not have been direct ancestors. Some species grew up to 10 metres long, feeding on the large shellfish that existed during the Cretaceous period, 66–145 million years ago. Although they had similar diet and teeth to modern rays, they looked more like modern nurse sharks, which cruise the seabed for small fish and shellfish.

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Object of the Month – August 2018

Red squirrel - August object of the month

August’s Object of the Month is a red squirrel. The mammal was chosen as Object of the Month by Sarah Kenyon, Natural Sciences Officer.

This red squirrel was found dead at Saffron Walden, Essex in August 2003. It had been run over by a car in Landscape View. A member of the Uttlesford group of Essex Wildlife Trust gave it to Saffron Walden Museum to be preserved. The body was mounted, or stuffed, by a taxidermist. This red squirrel has russet red fur on its body and tail, with white fur on its chest and belly. Male and female squirrels look identical.

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Hello to James

Hello! As I’ve been here since the end of April, it’s well-and-truly time to introduce myself. I’m James Lumbard, and I’m delighted to have been chosen to share the post of Natural Sciences Officer with Sarah Kenyon. I’ve really enjoyed my introduction to the job, the museum and the friendly staff and volunteers who make it such a pleasant place to work and visit. I’m originally from South Wales and moved to East Anglia two years ago. I’ve moved around a few times since then, moving to Tendring district at the start of this year, so it’s great to have the chance to explore Uttlesford and the lovely town of Saffron Walden.

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Object of the Month – May 2018

 

May’s Object of the Month is a Stag Beetle.

This male stag beetle was found dead on the Recreation Ground at Great Dunmow, Essex in May 1999. It was handed in to the police station at Dunmow, and a Police Wildlife Liaison Officer gave it to Saffron Walden Museum to be preserved.

Stag Beetles

The stag beetle, Lucanus cervus, is the largest beetle in Britain. They prefer areas with low rainfall, high air temperatures and light soils, so stag beetles are widespread in southern England, especially the Thames valley, north Essex, south Suffolk, south Hampshire and west Sussex. They are also found in the Severn valley, coastal areas of the southwest, and a few areas in Devon and Worcestershire. They live in hedgerows, parks, gardens and in the edges of woodlands.

Adult males are up to 75 mm long. They have large antler-like jaws, or mandibles, which are used for wrestling with other males during the breeding season.

A Long Life Cycle

Stag beetle larva (image by Anaxibia, from Wikimedia Commons)

The stag beetle has a long life cycle. Three to seven years are spent underground in the larval stage. Larvae are large white grubs, with orange heads, that can be up to 11 cm long. When it is time to change into an adult, a larva builds an oval shaped cocoon in the soil up to 20 cm below ground. Cocoons can be as large as an orange and may take up to three weeks to build. Within the cocoon the larva becomes a pupa and finally changes, or metamorphoses, into an adult. An adult stag beetle emerges from its cocoon in the autumn, then it spends the winter and spring in the soil.

Breeding

Adult beetles usually emerge from the soil from mid May onwards. Males can be seen flying at dusk looking for a mate. Male beetles use their antlers to wrestle other males when competing for a female beetle.

Female stag beetle (Image by Q-bit array, from Wikimedia Commons)

Females are often seen on the ground looking for somewhere to lay their eggs. They lay small, round eggs below ground near to rotting wood in log piles, tree stumps and old fence posts. Female beetles prefer to dig down into light soil to bury their eggs, and newly emerging adults have to find their way to the surface.  Very few stag beetles are found in hard, chalky areas like the North and South Downs.

By the end of August most stag beetles will have died after mating. They do not survive the winter.

You can see this stag beetle on display in the museum until 31 May 2018. You can also find out how you can encourage stag beetles to live in your garden!

Object of the Month – February 2018

 

February’s Object of the Month is a model great auk egg. It was chosen as Object of the Month by Sarah Kenyon, Natural Sciences Officer.

This plaster cast of a great auk egg was made in 1856. It is a copy of an egg that belonged to John Hancock, whose collection founded the Great North Museum in Newcastle upon Tyne. The egg, and the mould from which it was made, were given to Saffron Walden Museum by Mr William Murray Tuke of Hitchin, Hertfordshire in 1896. The inscription on the model egg reads: ‘Copy of J. Hancock’s Great Auk’s Egg Made Dec 1856’.

Making the Egg
A mould of John Hancock’s great auk egg was made first. The mould was then used to make a copy of the egg for Mr Tuke. The model egg was cast in plaster and two inscriptions engraved into the surface. Finally, the colour and markings were painted on to the model egg.

Great Auks
The great auk, Pinguinus impennis, was a flightless seabird that lived in the northern Atlantic Ocean. It was also called the gare fowl or garefowl. The black and white bird was about 75 centimetres long. Its wings were used for swimming under water, as they were only 15 centimetres long.

Great auks bred in colonies on rocky islands around the coasts of the north Atlantic Ocean, such as St. Kilda, the Faroe Islands, Iceland and Funk Island off Newfoundland. Each breeding pair mated for life. They laid a single egg on bare rock. It was about 12.5 centimetres long. Sailors and island people hunted the defenceless birds for their meat, feathers, fat, oil and eggs. When the last birds were killed in 1844 on Eldey Island off the coast of Iceland, the great auk became extinct.

Mounted specimens of the birds, their bones and eggs are preserved in museums. Saffron Walden Museum has a plaster copy of a skull in the Hessisches Landesmuseum at Darmstadt, Germany and copies of great auk eggs in the collections of Sir Walter Calverley Trevelyan of Wallington Hall, Northumberland and Mr Troughton of Coventry.

You can see the model egg on display in the museum until 28 February 2018, and discover more about the mould from which the egg was made and John Hancock, the famous taxidermist.

History of the Museum – Part One

The foundation of Saffron Walden Natural History Society

This is the first in a series of blog posts exploring the earliest years of Saffron Walden Museum and the society that established it. In this post, we delve into the earliest recorded meetings of the founders of the museum, including the creation of the Saffron Walden Natural History Society and the committee’s gathering of objects. With thanks to Len Pole, who has been instrumental in studying the earliest available records and helping to compile a history of the museum.

Jabez Gibson

Saffron Walden Museum was established in the 1830s by Saffron Walden Natural History Society. The earliest recorded meeting of the society took place on the 22 November 1832, in the home of Jabez Gibson in King Street, Saffron Walden. In this meeting, a statement of the society’s Rules and Regulations was written and the committee of the society was decided upon. The people placed onto the committee were Jabez Gibson (chairman), John Player, Thomas Spurgin, Joshua Clarke and William Ward. 

Much of the early workings of the society are shrouded in mystery, as information has been lost over time. It is not clearly stated who the founders of the society were, though it seems likely that the founders were these five men, and it is even less clear how other people joined the society. The society had a group of ‘Friends and Supporters’ – anyone subscribing or donating a certain amount of money – but it is not clear whether these ‘Friends and Supporters’ became members of the society. The main purpose of the society was to establish a museum but it is interesting to note just how tentative they were in doing so. They were so cautious that they did not settle on the name ‘Saffron Walden Natural History Society’ until a meeting in 1834, 18 months after the first recorded meeting!

Establishing the museum

As was common with museums in the nineteenth century, the founders focused their collecting on Natural History. The first rule of the Rules and Regulations states “That a Museum be formed to include Specimens in the several Departments of Natural History, with Antiquarian remains, and other such Articles as may be of local or general interest”. The term ‘local or general interest’ is somewhat ambiguous, and suggests that the founders intended to collect whatever they found personally interesting!

It seems that between the first meeting in November 1832 and January 1833, the committee focused on collecting specimens for display and writing letters to various well-known figures of the period, such as botanists and professors, many of whom donated to the collection. Rule 10 of the original Rules and Regulations stated that the secretaries Mr. Spurgin and Mr. Clarke were “requested to enter into a Book the Several Donations (made to the collection) in order that it might be handed down as a Register of this Institution”. However, either Mr Spurgin and Mr Clarke ignored this request or the book was never handed on. The first paid curator of the museum, George Nathan Maynard, moaned about the lack of such a register when he was faced with the task of retrospectively creating one in the 1880s, working from committee minutes and presumably the recollections of surviving members of the society. The earliest recorded addition to the museum collection in Maynard’s retrospective register was from the Zoological Society, consisting of ‘30 birds and a deer’.

The first page of Maynard’s replacement register

The first entrance in Maynard’s register

And so, the museum had a foundation: a set of Rules of Regulations and the beginnings of a collection. The focus on natural history  and specimens from fields such as zoology and botany was upheld by the museum curators, and the lasting influence of the early values of the Saffron Walden Natural History Society can still be seen in the museum and its collections today.

Behind-the-scenes on a Monday!

Have you ever wondered what staff do when the museum is closed on a Monday? We’re busy behind the scenes, making sure our collections are documented and cared for.

An important job to complete when the Museum is closed to visitors is routine cleaning of the museum’s permanent displays. Volunteers are helping curatorial staff to clean objects on display, a few cases at a time. This not only keeps the displays looking good, but also prevents potentially harmful dust particles accumulating on fragile objects, and allows curatorial staff to check for signs of corrosion and other problems.

Objects are carefully removed from the case to a table covered with acid-free tissue paper. Here they can be examined and very gently brushed to remove dust particles. The nozzle of the special mini-vacuum cleaner, designed for museum conservation, is held just above the object to remove any loose dust without touching fragile surfaces. Once the case interior has also been cleaned, everything can by placed back on display and the case secured. It can take about an hour to do a medium-sized show case.

Volunteer Joanne has been helping our curator Carolyn to clean the archaeology displays. So far, we are about half way round the gallery. In the case behind Joanne are some of the beautiful Roman glass vessels, pottery and metal objects used by and buried with local people over 1,800 years ago, at Little Walden, Canfield, Bartlow and Stebbing.

Other curatorial staff work in our off-site store with volunteers on a Monday. Here, we add and edit information about the collection onto our collections management database, making sure we know exactly what we have in the collection and where it is! This has been particularly important in the aftermath of our store-move, as the locations of all the objects moved (about 80,000 objects in total) needed to be updated! Every object has a separate record on the database, with information about its history, provenance, significance and physical appearance. 

As we work through the collections systematically, adding information to the database, we check the condition of our objects and identify any conservation work that needs to be done. Our new store has helped dramatically with this process as we now have the space to store our objects in a more visible way and to lay out objects so that they can be inspected. 

Whether they are on display, or cared for in our stores, our collections are at the heart of the museum. It is vitally important that we take the time to care for them properly, so that they are preserved for people to enjoy long into the future. 

Object of the Month – December 2017

 

December’s Object of the Month is a pair of robins. The birds were chosen as Object of the Month by Sarah Kenyon, Natural Sciences Officer.

This adult female robin has the familiar red face and breast feathers. It is a mounted, or stuffed, bird specimen that was given to the museum during the 1800s. Male and female adult robins look identical. On display with her is the preserved skin of a young male robin whose feathers are brown with pale spots. Juvenile robins grow red feathers after their first moult. This young robin was found dead at Saffron Walden, Essex in August 2000. Study skins prepared like this are used for research in museums.

Robins
The European robin, Erithacus rubecula, is a member of the thrush family, so it is related to the blackbird and the nightingale. They live in woodland, hedgerows, parks and gardens. Robins from northern Europe may visit Britain during winter. These small song birds only live for a couple of years. Robins eat worms, snails, insects, spiders and seeds, berries and fruits.
Robins are often pictured in snowy scenes on Christmas cards. However, a robin can use up 10% of its body weight during a cold night. Unless a bird is able to feed well every day a prolonged cold spell can be fatal. Putting out food on bird tables can help robins to survive. They eat mealworms, scraps of meat, fat, cheese, cake and biscuit crumbs, dried fruit and crushed peanuts.

Territory
The robin is one of the few birds that hold a territory all year round for breeding and feeding. In summer a territory is defended by a male and female breeding pair. During winter each robin will hold an individual territory. Robins will always defend their territories from other robins. They sometimes fight to the death.

Song
Robins sing all year round because they need to defend their territories. They will also sing at night, usually under artificial street lighting, and are often mistaken for nightingales. The song is a rippling stream of crystal-clear notes with changes of speed and volume. An alarm call is a sharp “tic”, or repeated ticking “tic-ic-ic…”.

Breeding and Nesting
Robins normally start breeding in March. Males and females only pair up for a season. They nest on, or near, the ground in sites such as hollow in a bank or tree root, in climbing plants or in sheds. British robins prefer open-fronted nest boxes. A female builds a cup-shaped nest from moss and dead leaves, and then lines it with hair.
The female lays and incubates four to six eggs. The young leave the nest, called fledging, at 14 days old. Their parents look after them for up to three weeks. Most pairs of robins will try to raise three broods of chicks a year.

You can see the robins on display in the museum until 1 January 2018.