HOMES AND GARDENS - MAMMALS




 

 

Leaving Wild Boar out of the equation, Roe Deer (Capreolus capreolus, shoulder height 70cm) are the largest wild native mammal likely to enter most gardens. Red Deer are nothing like so common in the south or so relatively tame, and Sika Deer (Cervus nippon) and Muntjacs (Muntiacus reevesi), which are tiny anyway, non-native and a pest. Having said that, Roe Deer were wiped out in lowland England centuries ago and those present now are descended from reintroductions in the 19th century.

Roe Deer are more solitary than their larger cousins and, thanks to milder winters plus no natural predators, they are increasing in number.

As a result, there is every chance of one turning up in a garden close to woodland, their usual habitat and one in which it is fairly easy to see them despite their nocturnal habits and tendency to stay out of sight in fairly thick cover.

They do not live to a great age, with road fatalities high, and culling is a common practice in managed open spaces and forest owing to the negative effect the deer have on woodland regeneration – they browse brambles, grass and cereals but it is their destruction of young trees which is the worst aspect for conservationists. For gardeners, it is tomatoes and roses.

The buck’s antlers are small, and rutting occurs in July, with delayed implantation resulting in a kid being born the following May.

Muntjac Deer are approximately 50cm high at the shoulder and chestnut brown with an arched back. They are usually solitary and the male has small antlers plus canine ‘tusks’ visible in the image above. Native to China, they originally escaped from Woburn Abbey in Bedfordshire in the 19th century and have spread to cover most of southern and eastern England. Most woodland and thick scrub harbour the species, with gardens often visited, and they are increasing their range by around 8% per year. Numbers were predicted to increase by 30% in the decade up to 2015.

This poses a potential if not actual problem since Muntjac – the pictured ones were photographed at The British Wildlife Centre in Surrey – are selective browsers of shrubs and woodland ground flora. This leads to loss of flora such as Oxlip, Bluebell and Dog's Mercury, while loss of shrubs leads to a decline in habitat for nightingales, some butterflies and for dormice. They can also cause problems for gardeners.

Badgers (Meles meles, male summer 9kg, autumn/early winter 10.5kg), our biggest native land-based carnivore, are believed now to be more numerous in the UK than Red Foxes, with a figure of more than 400,000 replacing the old one of around 250,000. They are essentially sociable woodland mammals who are crepuscular/nocturnal and construct often massive and labyrinthine subterranean setts.

Badgers will eat virtually anything, from fruit and cereals to carrion. Wasp nests are attacked enthusiastically, with a record of more than 30 in two nights dealt with in one Sussex location, but earthworms are the staple diet, which means dry summers can be a trial.

They are also not averse to entering gardens to forage and sometimes create setts. The first I knew of their presence locally was when a carrot bed was dug up in the garden I look after, which backs on to woodland with a lot of pasture only a mile or so away – an ideal location for the species.

The first sighting, in a protracted dry spell, was of a sow drinking water from the birdbath. This happened with others in a visiting group of at least six over the next few weeks.

On the whole it is not wise to tempt Badgers into gardens because invariably there are roads close by, with the accompanying risk of fatalities. Also, they can do a lot of damage to fencing – much more than Red Foxes – and some damage to lawns, though Rabbits (Oryctolagus cunniculus) are a bigger problem there, while it is illegal to disturb a sett if they set one up, with all the attendant digging.

A minor point, though not for the victims, is that Badgers eat Hedgehogs (Erinaceus europaeus, 600gm), a species which can do a lot of good in gardens by eating invertebrates, and which is too often unknowingly excluded by leaving no access under boundary fences.

On the other hand, few people see Badgers – a popular species – in the wild. Even if for only a short period, and providing they are not encouraged to become tame, they can provide an intriguing insight into the varied behaviour of a still persecuted and generally wholly admirable creature.

The issue of bovine tuberculosis (Mycobacterium bovis) is not a relevant one in most of south-east England or East Anglia. The latter area is not heavily populated with the species anyway on account of the shortage of an appropriate mosaic of habitats, and most cattle are also further west.

Badgers carry bovine tuberculosis, and in greater numbers than such wild mammals as Roe Deer for the simple reason that they come into closer proximity to cattle on earthworm-rich pasture. Equally, it is not their disease but one which they were given, and are given, by cattle. As a point of interest, if a human beat up someone for giving the aggressor’s sister influenza, when he had undoubtedly given the disease to the recipient of the blow in the first place, there would be no defence for the assault in a court of law. But then we are not talking about people, but Badgers.

Despite decades of research, the scientific evidence to back a cull is at best sketchy and at worst totally unconvincing. There is no evidence that Badgers are the sole cause of the spread of bovine TB, nor is there ever likely to be, because it simply isn’t true. Cattle can and do pass the disease between themselves with no involvement by Badgers or any other wildlife.

Nor is there any evidence to suggest that culling infected Badgers will eradicate bovine TB from any location for more than a short period, if at all. Admittedly, it might provide some relief, even if only temporary, and with less movement of cattle and, where feasible, stronger fencing the relief might be extended. But these are mights, not wills.

In short, many doubts remain about the validity, effectiveness and, not to put too fine a point on it, humaneness of a cull. Even if these matters were all resolved, public compliance will be very hard to obtain, as was confirmed by the widespread hostility that surfaced from February 2013 onwards when the government announced pilot culls for Somerset and Gloucestershire. A key element there is the general popularity of a farming community which, not necessarily through any fault of its own, has contributed to the proven impoverishment of flora and fauna in Britain for much of the last century. A community which, again through no fault of its own, has been in the habit of killing hundreds of thousands of bull calves on the day they are born each year because there is no money to be made from them.

With this background, whatever the facts may state, farming’s chances of winning hearts and minds over to the belief that culling Badgers is essential for the maintenance of a healthy stock of cattle are virtually nil. But without some degree of compliance, legal culling is likely to face numerous obstacles. Certainly if illegal culling is used anywhere, farmers will become even more the subject of suspicion or anger.

Something similar applies to a non-native mammal, the Grey Squirrel (Sciurus carolinensis, 500gm), which outnumbers the native Red Squirrel (Sciurus vulgaris leocotis) by about 66 to one and has expanded its range consistently for as long as it has been here, around 150 years.

Unlike Badgers with bovine TB, the ill-effects of Grey Squirrels on our flora and fauna are indisputable, in so far as they can outcompete Red Squirrels and infect them with the deadly parapox virus, damage woodland severely due to bark stripping (Red Squirrels also do this), and sometimes attack the nests of various woodland birds.

Bark stripping is believed to be connected with behaviour rather than feeding, including aggression – there is little sign of it in North America, where the squirrels come from, seemingly because the forests are richer and there are natural predators to control numbers.

While Red Foxes (and some domestic cats) will kill squirrels, unless the European Eagle Owl (Bubo Bubo) starts breeding in increasing numbers there are no predators able to get stuck into the species. Not that the development of the Eagle Owl as a breeding species is necessarily to be greeted with open arms.

Grey Squirrels certainly take advantage of any food put out for birds in a garden, and when thinner due to a lack of natural food at certain stages of the summer they can gain entry to bird feeders which would usually exclude them. The pictured Squirrel above got into, and out of, the feeder via a gap measuring 48mm by 35mm.

Some of the efforts householders take to try and stop Grey Squirrels, including sound, water and electricity, make for entertaining viewing but they are hard to beat without violence, since they are quick, determined, persistent, versatile and cute. Those qualities endear them to the public at large and make obtaining support for a cull extremely hard. Occasionally, as in the pictured animal above right, white versions turn up. Their chances of breeding and even survival are compromised by this oddity of nature.

Moles (Talpa europaea, 100gm) are common, with an estimated 31 million in Britain, and they are extremely active, especially in winter – one fairly small field within a mile of where I’m writing this had more than 200 molehills visible in 2005.

Given the requirement of underground runs, where earthworms are the main prey, woodland is rarely used in depth. However, gardens, in particular below lawns or vegetable plots, offer splendid opportunities, to the frequent annoyance of the gardener.

After a long, dry spell the pictured Mole turned up in a rockery and under paving stones right by the house, and had to be extracted because it had nowhere to go safely.

Rabbits (Oryctolagus cunniculus) were introduced in the Middle Ages for commercial reasons and are now abundant in the wild and in gardens, which provide plenty of safe forage, including on vegetable patches, unless there are Red Foxes around to prey on them. They are a staple food of various birds as well as mammals.

Wood Mice (Apodemus sylvaticus, 30gm) are common in woodland and gardens, forming a main part of the diet of the tawny owl and regularly falling foul of domestic cats. Like all mice, they can breed prolifically and the pictured one was with around ten others inside a plastic rubbish bin in a hedge which I was trying to remove. The bin stayed, and so did the mice. The Wood Mouse is more widespread than the Yellow-necked Mouse (Apodemus flaivicollis), which is closely related.

Images © Jeremy Early. All rights reserved.

In 2013 I published My Side of the Fence – the Natural History of a Surrey Garden. Details may be found, and orders placed, via this hyperlink My Side of the Fence. In November 2015 Surrey Wildlife Trust published the atlas Soldierflies, their allies and Conopidae of Surrey, jointly written by David Baldock and me. Details are on this web page: Atlas.

HOMES & GARDENS: Mammals . Red Fox . Nesting Birds . Birds . Pond Life . Bees . Social Wasps . Solitary Wasps .
Bees & Wasps in flight . Insect Boxes . Ladybirds . Other Beetles . Bugs . Soldierflies & Allies . Other Insects . Spiders