As lockdown continues, A Rocha UK continues to reflect on nature close to home. With less traffic and fewer people many of our mammals are able to stage a bit of a come-back into areas where they once lived.
Across the north of England, Scotland, Northern Ireland and islands like Brownsea in Dorset, red squirrels are a familiar sight in gardens and in more remote woodland areas. Unlike its grey cousin, whose origin is in North America, the red squirrel is a native species to the UK, often out competed for space by the invasive grey. They need a lot of space: typically one pair on territory will live in an area the size of 34 football pitches. If you examine a pine-cone that has had its seeds eaten by reds, you will be able to discover whether the squirrel is right or left handed! Whilst they do come to gardens, they rely on large expanses of native mixed forests and are getting rarer – especially in Ireland and England, where you will be lucky if you have one cheekily stealing from your bird feeder.
Perhaps more familiar, but equally a challenge to spot (unless you are night owl), is the hedgehog. Covered in up to 7,000 spines (which are replaced every year) this prickly mammal is unfortunately popular food for badger, opportunistic foxes and even determined domestic cats and dogs. A victim of road kills and struggling with climate change, building hedgehog houses and providing suitable food for them in winter can help them to get through the worst times of the year. A small hole cut in the neighbour’s fence (with their permission!) can also help them to travel, which is a key part of their search for a mate, somewhere to hibernate and for food.
And what about some of the lesser known mammals of the UK? Folklore in Scotland talks of the Cat Sith- a forest fairy that stalked the mountainsides dressed as a large cat. Now, as far as we know, tales of cat fairies are as legendary as the Loch Ness Monster, but you are unlikely to venture on the wildcat – a relative of the domestic cat and confined to the Highlands of Scotland in the UK. Its Latin name Felis sylvestris literally translates as ‘cat of the woods’, and refers to its love of ancient forests in remote locations. But one or two fortunate people have even recorded them in their gardens – and with active conservation programmes, the wildcat is beginning a slow recovery from the brink of extinction.
Far more common, but really hard to see, is the little harvest mouse. Weighing no more than a 2 pence coin, the harvest mouse uses its tail as a fifth limb when climbing about in its grassland or reedbed habitat. They are the only mammal with a prehensile tail – that means a tail that can be used to grasp and hold things. Harvest mice shred grasses by pulling them through their teeth and weaving them into elaborate nests to raise their young. Like many mammal species they are threatened by human activity, and premature mowing or cutting of wildflower meadows, wheat fields and reed beds can sadly lead to their demise. Often the only evidence of their presence is when a farmer or landowner stumbles on a disused nest.
Our UK mammals are a mixture of the familiar and unfamiliar, and all connected by an ongoing fight for survival from cars, climate, domestic cats, invasive predators and many other factors.
If you want to find out more, why not search the database of UK mammals at: https://www.wildlifetrusts.org/wildlife-explorer/mammals
Here you can find out more about all our UK mammals, from red fox to badger and pine marten through to the ubiquitous house mouse. Why not contact us if you find any interesting mammals near your home, in your garden or local park?
This blog was written by Andy Lester, Head of Conservation at A Rocha UK for the ‘Nature and darkness’ Wild Christian email.