Over the weekend Neil Phillips, Richard Hing, Jonathan McGowan and I went into the field, in quest of tetrapods (Jon and Neil are shown in the adjacent image, as are other mammals). And we saw a bunch. In an effort to produce a post that is essentially an excuse to showcase some of Neil’s photos (for the whole set go here), it occurred to me that this is a good chance to throw out some random facts about Britain and some of its wildlife… well, more random facts than I’ve already thrown out, anyway. Contrary to the idea that Britain lacks anything interesting, I still think we have a really exciting mix of species: what’s more, we live in exciting times, as people are increasingly talking about reintroducing the species that we had here historically. Actually, they’re not just talking about it, but also acting on it, whether you like it or not. On top of this we have aliens, lots of them. It’s a story of wallabies, wildcats and wild boars…
If you’re interested in the historical zoology of Britain’s tetrapod fauna, there are three essential volumes which are mandatory reading: Lever (1977), Yalden (1999) and Beebee & Griffiths (2000). I’ll try not to cite them too many times in the text that follows.
No matter how many animals you might see in the wild – in this case, in the New Forest – you’re unlikely to get to see them at particularly close range, so if you want to get nice photos you play smart and stop off at a wildlife park, or zoo, first. We visited the New Forest Otter and Owl Wildlife Park (website here) at Ashurt. It was awesome, and here are just a small selection of some of the creatures we saw.
People outside of the UK – and even many of those within it – are often totally unaware of the multiple wallaby colonies that Britain has, or had. The animal in question is Bennett’s wallaby Macropus rufogriseus rufogriseus, the Tasmanian subspecies of the Red-necked wallaby (the subspecies of mainland Australia is M. r. banksianus). It’s been introduced all over the place, including Herm in the Channel Islands, the Weald in south-east England, northern England and Scotland. The biggest colony lives within the grounds of Whipsnade Wild Animal Park (formerly Whipsnade Zoo) in Bedfordshire and is said to have been the source of colonies introduced elsewhere. A colony in Staffordshire mostly died out during the harsh winter of 1962-63 (but were just about still going as recently as the 1990s), the Inconnachan Island* colony started out in 1975 and is apparently still going, but members of the famous Peak District (Derbyshire) colony – first introduced during the 1940s – haven’t been seen since 2000 and are now thought extinct. Yalden (1988) showed that the wallabies suffered badly from domestic dog harassment and also frequently ended up as roadkill, and from a maximum of 50 animals in 1960 they were down to two by 2000. Because Bennett’s wallaby is widely kept in animal collections, and because they seem to be pretty good at escaping, random individuals are reported from all over the country on occasion. The fact that Bennett’s wallaby comes from Tasmania (and has a distinct breeding season) means that it is preadapted for the British climate: well, more preadapted than any other wallaby anyway.
* Inconnachan Island is in the huge Loch Lomond, central Scotland.
As you’ll know if you read the recent Fallow deer Dama dama article, many of the deer species present in Britain are not native. Sika deer Cervus nippon now occur across Scotland and in scattered localities in southern, central and northern England, and in eastern Ireland. First introduced in 1860 from Japan (but later introduced on various occasions to multiple locations), their rise in numbers has often been said to be linked to the spread of conifer plantations, a habitat they prefer and are hard to eliminate from. As I discussed a while back in an article on Red deer C. elephus (here), sika are not only a forestry pest; they hybridize widely with Red deer. At the risk of repeating stuff on this subject I’ll stop there: if you want to know more please read the ver 1 article on British deer here. I admit that I like the way sika look; they are small and friendly looking and have a distinctive ‘frowning’ expression. Distinctive features include prominent pale rump patches and a light-coloured metatarsal gland surrounded by erectile hairs. Like so many deer, the species as a whole is horrendously variable and the Japanese sikas that I’m describing here might be paedomorphic island dwarfs quite different from those of mainland Asia.
My favourite deer are the muntjacs: the Chinese muntjac Muntiacus reevesi is easy to see in the wild in Britain, and occurs over most of England and Wales and in at least part of Scotland. Native to sub-montane forest in eastern Asia, it’s been released in Britain repeatedly since the 1890s and has thrived despite its preferred habitat. I’d say more but I’m going to do muntjacs another time. Sadly, one deer that really should be regarded as a British native wasn’t present in the collection: the Moose Alces alces. As is well known (in part thanks to Jurassic Park I think), moose are often said to be difficult to keep in captivity as they are excellent at escaping, mostly because their highly prehensile lips make them good at opening locks and catches and so on. This remarkable mouth is a specialisation that the moose uses to eat aquatic plants, and moose are not just adept waders and browsers; they also swim and dive and can feed from the bottom of a lake or pool, staying down for up to six minutes. Incidentally, Geist (1999) argued that moose evolved their habits and remarkable morphology to avoid competing with megacerine deer. Anyway, moose are now known to have been living in Britain as recently as 4000 years ago, making them essentially part of our modern fauna. They should be here, and are absent due to human hunting.
The Otter and Owl Wildlife Park also had several particularly handsome wild boar Sus scrofa. Boar were definitely still present in Britain until the 1260s or thereabouts, and are also mentioned in accounts from the 17th century. However, even at this time we know that people were introducing them from Germany and elsewhere, and in fact boar have been released into Britain throughout history. Thanks partly to accidental escapes (some of which happened during the 1987 hurricane), but also to many deliberate ones, we now have hundreds of wild boar living and breeding across Britain again. There are now hundreds in the Weald, with smaller numbers in Dorset, the Forest of Dean (Gloucestershire) and Devon. Some of the animals seem not yet to have any fear of humans and routinely wander about in the daytime and in close proximity to cars and people. This behaviour will probably change if and when persecution escalates. While boar have an undoubted major impact on agricultural land and on the look of tidy golf courses, gardens and road verges, the positive role they play in controlling pest plants is almost certainly more important: they have a major impact on one of our most troublesome plants, bracken. We have acres and acres of land covered by nothing but bracken: nothing eats it (bar two obscure aphids), its spores are carcinogenic, it’s highly flammable, and it’s a good reservoir of deer ticks, so at least some control would be nice. Bring on the boar I say.
The signage at the Otter and Owl Wildlife Park told us that Scottish wildcats are properly known as Felis silvestris grampia. This is the name that used to be used for this animal, but it’s no longer thought that British wildcats are worthy of taxonomic distinction from those of mainland Europe (Kitchener 1991). A widely held misconception is that the wildcat is exclusively Scottish, which seems a reasonable assumption in view of its common name. But the present distribution of the wildcat is an artifact resulting from massive persecution, and until as recently as 1800 wildcats were living across Wales and northern England (Langley & Yalden 1977). They might have hung on in these places and elsewhere until much later, and in fact there are definitely wildcat-type cats living wild in southern England today: exactly how pure they are is a good question, and where they came from is another one.
Like the moose, the Eurasian lynx Lynx lynx is not a prehistoric animal in wild Britain: we now know that it was still here until about 1500 years ago (Hetherington et al. 2006), so the argument that it has only been extirpated recently and really should still be here is a good one. A feasibility project led Hetherington & Gorman (2007) to conclude that Britain has enough space and wild animal prey to accommodate introduced lynxes, and there is much discussion as to whether such a project should go ahead. Of course, Britain already has lynxes living wild (as well as pumas and leopards), and the question of whether at least some of these animals result from deliberate releases – ‘covert re-wilding’ – is a good one. For some reason, Neil doesn’t seem to have taken any good photos of the lynx we got to see at close range – his name is Oden – but I did, so here’s one of mine.
We also spent a lot of time looking at the otters and owls that the place is named for, and saw much else besides. We also looked at a lot of wild animals. But I’ve run out of time, have written too much, and really must move on to the other overdue bits of work I need to finish. Coming next: giant pigeons, island otters and titan hawks!
Many thanks to Neil for use of his photos.
Refs – –
Beebee, T. & Griffiths, R. 2000. Amphibians and Reptiles. HarperCollins, London.
Geist, V. 1999. Deer of the World. Swan Hill Press, Shrewsbury.
Hetherington, D. A. & Gorman, M. L. 2007. Using prey densities to estimate the potential size of reintroduced populations of Eurasian lynx. Biological Conservation 137, 37-44.
– . , Lord, T. C. & Jacobi, R. M. 2006. New evidence for the occurrence of Eurasian lynx (Lynx lynx) in medieval Britain. Journal of Quaternary Science 21, 3-8.
Kitchener, A. C. 1991. The Natural History of the Wild Cats. Christopher Helm, London.
Langley, P. J. W. & Yalden, D. W. 1977. The decline of the rarer carnivores in Great Britain during the nineteenth century. Mammal Review 7, 95-116.
Lever, C. 1977. The Naturalized Animals of the British Isles. Hutchinson & Co, London.
Yalden, D. 1988. Feral wallabies in the Peak District, 1971-1985. Journal of Zoology 215, 369-374.
– . 1999. The History of British Mammals. T & A D Poyser, London.