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On your marks . . . as we get ready for the Olympic Games, Rachel Hudson, of the Berks, Bucks & Oxon Wildlife Trust, looks at some of the athletes of the animal kingdom
2:56pm Thursday 19th July 2012 in Country matters
Next week sees the start of the Olympic Games and we’ll witness Team GB athletes pitting themselves against other nations to win a coveted medal.
But it’s not just humans that are pushing the boundaries to achieve great physical feats. Going about their daily lives and without any fanfare are animal athletes, breaking records in our countryside and towns.
Here’s a rundown of local wildlife winners and where you can see them. The fastest bird, and indeed fastest animal of any kind, is the peregrine falcon. In Aylesbury recently peregrines took up residence at County Hall catching the attention of hundreds of people.
With its wings folded and tail feathers closed to form a sleek projectile, the peregrine can ‘stoop’ or ‘plunge dive’ from great heights to catch birds in mid-air, or during territorial displays, reaching a speed of at least 200km/h (124mph) and probably as much as 250km/h (155mph). If the peregrine falcon was doing the 100-metre sprint, it would cross the line in just 0.09 seconds, that’s 100 times faster than the top human record which currently stands at 9.58 seconds. No one knows how this lightning bolt among birds manages to pull out of such astonishing sprints without blacking out, or tearing itself apart.
Our smallest mammal, the harvest mouse, is as agile as our finest gymnast performing a flawless routine on the parallel bars or the rings. Using its prehensile tail as an extra hand, the harvest mouse can cling to stems while moving through hedgerows, reedbeds and cornfields. Being able to make a quick getaway through the grasses is a distinct advantage when you are near the bottom of the food chain and a tasty treat for other wildlife, including our next medallist, the barn owl.
If you are impressed by the hand-eye coordination of the archers in Team GB, then you’ll find the barn owl truly awe- inspiring. You may see them gliding silently, wings outstretched, over open meadows and along roadside verges as they hunt for prey. With highly-sensitive eyes, an acute sense of hearing and long legs with sharp talons, barn owls can target prey from a considerable distance with pinpoint accuracy, plucking mice out of the grass with relative ease. You’re likely to see them hunting along the rides at Warburg Nature Reserve.
The special talent of the unassuming common frog-hopper is the high jump. Only 5mm long, this tiny insect can leap 70 centimetres between blades of grass — that’s 140 times its own body length and the equivalent to a human clearing a skyscraper! You may have seen this insect in your own back garden, enclosed in frothy ‘cuckoo-spit’.
Just like our most powerful track athletes with their huge thighs, the brown hare with long, muscular back legs, is specially adapted for running. This is an animal with stamina too and can maintain speeds of up to 5km/h (31mph) for long periods. At Chimney Meadows nature reserve in west Oxfordshire you are likely to see this magnificent animal on the move through the hayfields. l Get excited about nature and discover animal athletes. Come along to the Sutton Courtenay Environmental Education Centre near Didcot any time between 10am and 4pm from July 31 to August 2 for family fun activities. Contact Katie Fenton 01235 862024 firstname.lastname@example.org Go to the What’s On page on www.bbowt.org.uk for events being held throughout the summer holidays.