Richard Collins: Mammals bucking the trend with an expansion

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Richard Collins: Mammals bucking the trend with an expansion

With ‘bird numbers plummeting’, ‘the insect Armageddon’, and ‘climate catastrophe only 12 years away’, there’s doom and gloom on the wildlife front. But, said T S Eliot, ‘humankind cannot bear that much reality’; we need something to give us hope.

There is little positive news to hand, but a report by Katie Sainsbury of Exeter University bucks the apocalyptic trend. Writing in Mammal Review, she and colleagues claim that ‘the status of Great Britain’s mammalian carnivores has markedly improved since the 1960s’.

A century ago, pollution habitat destruction and persecution rendered otters virtually extinct in England and Wales. Then, water quality measures revitalised rivers and harmful pesticides were outlawed. Fish numbers rose and otters returned to their former haunts. Hunting them was banned in 1978. Attitudes towards wildlife had changed; Tarka the Otter was voted one of the ‘100 Greatest Family Films’.

The elusive pine marten, Sainsbury’s report notes, also benefited from the 20th Century green enlightenment. Hunted for its fur, this tree-dweller survived only in Scotland. Recovery elsewhere needed a helping hand; Scottish martens were captured and released at key locations in England and Wales.

Stoat numbers ‘may have increased’, the report says, but their status is uncertain; these little carnivores are almost impossible to census. Britain’s weasel population seems to be down but polecats have ‘expanded their range throughout southern Britain from refugia in Wales’. Badgers ‘have generally increased in population density’. Foxes ‘remain widespread’ but numbers ‘are currently declining’. There is great concern, however, for one of Britain’s most iconic animals; there may be only 200 wildcats left in the Scottish highlands. Interbreeding with domestic cats is depleting their gene-pool. Releasing foreign cats into the Cairngorms may be the only hope of avoiding extinction.

Ireland has fewer carnivore species than Britain. We have no wildcats polecats or weasels. What people call ‘weasels’ here are, in fact, stoats. Mammal research has been less extensive but the evidence suggests that our wild predators are also ‘holding their own’.

The otter, classified as ‘Near Threatened’ by the IUCN, has never been in trouble in Ireland. ‘This country now holds the densest population of otters in western Europe’, wrote UCD’s Tom Hayden at the turn of the millennium. As a child during the 1950s, I saw the odd one along the banks of the Shannon.

The Irish pine marten story resembles the British one. Dromore Wood, in County Clare, was one of the few remaining haunts of Ireland’s most endangered mammal in the 1950s. We visited this area on the edge of the Burren occasionally, hoping to catch a glimpse of the elusive resident, but to no avail. It had the mystique of the Abominable Snowman, a creature much in the news, back then, with the attempts to conquest Everest. Against all the odds, the marten has expanded its range dramatically in Ireland. According to the Wildlife Service, we had 3,000 to 10,000 of them in 2007.

Reintroductions weren’t needed, although delinquent animals, squatting in people’s attics, were released into Killarney National Park.

- K. Sainsbury et al. Recent history, current status, conservation and management of native mammalian carnivore species in Great Britain. Mammal Review. 2019.

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