The fastest and fittest of the animal kingdom

Later this month some of the world's fastest and fittest athletes will compete for the most coveted medals in sport – but can wildlife give Usain Bolt and Jessica Ennis a run for their money?

It’s quite a year of milestones in 2012; the Queen’s Jubilee, Cheshire Wildlife Trust’s very own 50th birthday and of course the Olympics – the  first to be hosted in the UK for more than 60 years.

The Olympic  Committee have made great strides to ensure The Games are one of the greenest ever, with the construction of natural habitats right at the heart of the Olympic Park and part of its legacy – but what of the sporting credentials of Britain’s wildlife?

Perhaps the most sought after tickets will be those for the 100m sprint – an almost superhuman burst of power that can propel the best in worldthrough 10 metres in less than a second. Although with a slight  advantage of an additional pair of legs, our own brown hare would leave most  printers standing with an average speed of 45mph – more than enough to beat the current world’s best – who would barely set off a speed camera at a positively leisurely 27mph in top gear.

And even though  hey’d likely be disqualified for starting several hundred feet above the Olympic stadium, some of London’s many pairs of peregrines could no doubt add to the drama too, dropping in at up to 200mph. It’s not all about speed though, and for the marathon runners and  long-distance walkers, pacing yourself is the way to win.

The same could be said of many of our migratory birds who often travel hundreds or even thousands of miles non-stop every spring and autumn. A place on the podium must then surely go to young common swifts, who on fledging from their nest high among our city rooftops will launch into around two or three years of non-stop flight, not even landing once. And if 26 miles sounds like a lot, an adult swift can expect to fly more than a million miles in its lifetime.

Over in the Aquatics Centre one of our best medal hopes is young Tom Daly, who’ll be hoping to dazzle in the diving pool where it’s all about thesmallest splash possible for a perfect 6.0. When it comes to diving prowess though, the gannet could probably give Tom a run for his money, with arrow-like perfection at an impressive 60mph – great to watch from a passing boat, less exciting if you’re in a shoal of fish under the waves.

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Although there are usually fewer spins and rolls in a gannet colony,the same split-second timing is crucial. Folding wings tight to its body less than a second before impact ensures an ideal entry – get it wrong and it may be the last dive the gannet ever makes. Perhaps the best advantage to being a gannet though is the ability to dive completely head-first – aided by internal air sacks in their neck and shoulders, something that so far we’ve only been able to adapt to our cars.

At the Fencing Centre they’ll be thrusting and parrying, but when it comes to nature’s best jousters, look no further than the autumn deer rut. With several sharp antlers each, male red deer are prime pugilists and will think nothing of running headlong into an opponent, often seeing them not only out of the duel, but across the nearest hill too.

A rather more serious business than simply receiving a medal, the spoils for these sword-bearers are a harem of female deer for the upcoming mating season – reward enough for several weeks of fighting off other would-be suitors.

When it comes to raw power though, size isn’t always everything and you sometimes have to look a little closer to find athletic skill in the animal world. Among the delicate mossy arena of the woodland floor, and perhaps choosing an old log for the perfect stage, stag and rhinocerosbeetles will wrestle their way to dominance, often flipping their opponent onto their backs for a whitewash of top scores. These strong-men of the insect world are also capable of lifting almost implausible weights relative to their size – more than 850 times – about the same as a normal human lifting a fully laden passenger jet.

Elsewhere, coordination is key, especially on the rowing course, but our own pond-dweller the water boatman adds to the list of impressivecredentials by actually rowing upside down. Its oars are in fact a pair of particularly long legs but the result is no less effective, propelling them across the water’s surface, although perhaps with less straightlineaccuracy than our own medal hopefuls.

With long legs and a perfectly executed Fosbury flop, those competing in the high jump are in with a chance of breaking a world record, however they’d struggle to beat the diminutive froghopper. An easily overlooked garden resident, the froghopper can exert energy of an astonishing 400 times their own bodyweight around 60cm into the air – not bad when you’re only a few millimetres long. Such impressive athleticism is achieved through building up energy in huge muscles that release when they simply can’t hold any longer.

With so much hot-headed competitiveness on the field, it seems fitting to finish on one of the more sedate sports – synchronised swimming. Masters of the pool, or indeed the pond, would have to be great crested grebes. Every spring across Cheshire’s lakes and meres these delicate waterbirds undertake a display of the same elegance and poise as anything seen in the Olympic pool.

In their case it is the male and female of a breeding pair rather than single-sex competition, however the aim is the always the same, to faultlessly mimic each and every movement, often ending with a rousing ‘walk on water’ – a finish that would no doubt impress even the hardiest of judges in London.

So when Usain Bolt breaks the world record yet again and we all wonder just how much they’ve spent on the closing ceremony, spare a thought for some of nature’s athletes, where mind-boggling sporting feats don’t just happen every four years, but every day in our backyard.

50 favourites for 50 years

From the barn owl to the bullhead fish, Cheshire Wildlife Trust’s new hardback book Cheshire’s Favourite Wildlife celebrates 50 of the region’s favourite species with stories and memories from contributors including BBC Radio 2’s Mark Radcliffe, Cheshire Life’s deputy editor Paul Mackenzie and a host of local naturalists.

Each story is lavishly illustrated with images from some of our very best nature photographers. At just �9.95 for the limited edition hardback, every copy sold helps to support the charity’s conservation projects across Cheshire.