The mammals of local woodlands.
Although the British Isles has comparatively little mature native woodland, around Andover we have more than our fair share with Harewood, Coldridge and Collingbourne (near Ludgershall), the woodlands around Chute, the Doles Wood complex, Faccombe, Oakhill Wood near Vernham Dean and several other smaller woodlands scattered around. With clay dominating the higher chalky hills, and being difficult to plough up to the C20, these areas were left as mature woodland, with the important benefits they gave to the local population. Woods provided timber, hazel poles, charcoal, edible herbs and meat from rabbits, deer, pigs and game birds especially.
The area of woodland in the UK at 31 March 2018 is 3.17 million hectares. This represents 13% of the total land area in the UK, 10% in England, 15% in Wales, 19% in Scotland and 8% in Northern Ireland. compared to around 37 per cent for European Union countries.
In the UK is ancient woodland (woodland since at least 1600) represents around 2.3 per cent of land area. Around Andover that figure is higher.
Ancient woodlands will be more species-rich than newly planted, possibly, coniferous woodland. Although young coniferous plantations can be rich in small mammals due to the exuberant grass between the young trees.
There are two native deer species: the red and roe deer. Other deer types have been introduced: the muntjac, sika, water and fallow. Chinese water-deer were present near Basingstoke for some years in the 1900s yet have since died out, although you could still encounter them in East Anglia. Sika deer are found in the New Forest, yet I have not heard of them locally (although the Deer Society’s map suggests they could be present).
I have seen and photographed a small group of red deer (Cervus elaphus) in the northern area of Harewood. I’m told that these were introduced in the 1990s for shooting. I have not encountered them for many years. The British Deer Society does record the species as being present in north Hampshire in 2016.
The other three deer species are widely distributed in north Hampshire.
Single small (big dog sized) animals with a raised white tail are most likely to be muntjac (Muntiacus reevesi). A good view will enable one to spot the prominent upper canine teeth. Males have short simple antlers.
They have spread widely and are active throughout the day and night. The females bark at two to three second intervals for up to half-an-hour to attract males. They hold territories and males scent mark shrubs.
Reeves’ muntjac are natives of Pakistan to Borneo are originate in the UK from animals that escaped from Woburn Park and Whipsnade Zoo in the 1820s and 1830s.
Roe deer (Capreolus capreolus) is a delightful species and common. While muntjac tend to be solitary animals, fallow and red herd deer, the roe are most often seen in small family groups – parents with young.
These are small to medium-sized animals with a distinct black nose and pointed ears. They show a reddish-brown summer pelage that often turns greyer in winter. Antlers are found on the males and develop to a total of three points (tines) on each side. (I have once encountered a male with a total of eight points, but that was in the German Black Forest.) Antlers are cast in late autumn and are fully reformed by April.
Roe can be spotted in both wooded and agricultural areas. They are browsers, eating snippets of many different plants (to minimise the consumption of too much of one type of plant toxin.) Their black droppings are often encountered.
When any are alarmed or males are in sexual combat with a neighbour they generate extended barks (often with an added ‘rumble’) and a rasping sound.
Mating is in late spring or early summer, locally April / May. Before that time males mark shrubs with their antlers (leaving visible damage) and are vocal at sunset.
All deer types are ‘sport’ animals and walkers will see deer shooting ‘high seats’ placed where deer frequently feed. As their natural prey species (wolf, lynx) have been eliminated from the UK, deer numbers could quickly increase. Many believe some control is required to maintain population levels.
Fallow Deer (Dama dama) were native to Turkey but have been spread widely around Europe. Their importation to the UK was by the Norman invaders.
These deer live in herds, with the males having palmate antlers and the species being intermediate in size between roe and red deer; they are about the size of sika deer (that have pointed antlers).
Colours vary with some being near black (melanistic), others white (albino). Typically, they are reddish-fawn with white spots along the flank. Often turn dark grey in winter with no visible spots, but some fail to change from their summer colouration. All colours can be seen in Harewood.
Antlers are cast in April – June and are fully grown and clear of ‘velvet’ by late summer ready for the autumnal rut (October locally).
Fallow deer are non-territorial (unlike roe) and wander widely in suitable habitat.
All deer are mainly browsers, although fallow also graze.
The best time of the day to see deer closely is just before dark. A silent walk will often be reward by the animals ignoring you completely. I have approached within ten metres while in clear sight.
Spring is a good time to seek out deer as the woodland floor is clear of ferns and light penetrates well through the thin canopy.
Badgers (Meles meles)
The distribution of setts, and hence the animals, varies widely and it has been suggested that this reflects the degree of aggression shown by landowners or their gamekeepers. Woodland with pasture fields nearby would be an ideal local habitat, with setts often on a slope.
Setts can have a single or multiple holes – one sett on the New Forest had around fifty entrances, not all were in current use. Frequently there will be extensive spoil outside the sett, sometimes signs of bedding and dung pits nearby. If with your two hands together you can nearly span the entrance hole it isn’t a badger’s. Badgers are large creatures (up to16Kg and .75m long, plus tail).
My technique for finding setts is to walk about 25m in, around the edge of a woodland. Look out for discarded mined chalk or for nettles and elderberry bushes. With urine and faeces sometimes deposited near a sett, the chemicals encourage both nettles and elderberry plants. While deer leave narrow trails through undergrowth badgers tread down tracks about 15cm wide. By following such tracks, you will ultimately end up at the sett or a popular feeding location. If the latter, go the other way!
Badgers are sometimes linked with carrying TB. That is indeed sometimes true, but cattle, deer and many other wild creatures also do this. The Isle of Wight has no TB in its badger population. Occasional outbreaks of TB in cattle have occurred there. Badgers do not swim! The TB probably came from the movement of infected cattle onto the island. Cattle with internal parasite populations and TB do not show up on TB testing.
Badgers deposit possible TB-containing faeces on the fringes of pasture fields. That is their behaviour. By keeping cattle away from the edge of such areas with an electric fence would stop disease transmission. TB vaccination is available for badgers and is used on some nature reserves.
Badgers are biologically carnivores. Their main diet is earthworms, although they are best described as omnivores as they also eat a wide range of plant materials. Badgers have been shown to eat: rabbits, mice, moles, carrion, cereals, windfall apples and other fruit. If its edible, the badger will eat it.
Badgers usually leave their setts around dusk. However, the best time of the year to watch for badgers is around Easter – that is when the young badgers are especially keen to be out and about and you may be lucky, as I have, in having youngsters wandering and playing around one’s feet in full daylight. But, don’t forget to put on a gentle mosquito repellent or wear a face net. I did that once but had dozens of bites on my elbows – my outer layer was pulled tight over the elbows by holding binoculars.
Badger skulls are easy identified as upper and lower jaws are permanently joined.
Fox (Vulpes vulpes)
A species that spreads across North America, Siberia, the Middle East and Europe. A successful beast in that it will consume almost anything and is intelligent.
Friends see more foxes in London than I ever come across locally. Again, this is largely a reflection of human aggression, for foxes eat (non-native) pheasants when they are easily caught.
Foxes live in family groups, with the males and females marking winter territory with a pungent musky smell that once encountered is not forgotten. Females are sexually receptive (in oestrus) in January and February, giving birth in February or March. Cubs disperse in mid to late summer.
Foxes will sometimes co-habit with badgers, although they usually use different parts of the sett.
To watch foxes it would be advised to seek out un-keepered locations and to explore at dawn and dusk. During the denning period the adults will require more food, so will be active for more of the day.
Polecat (Mustella putorius)
They do occur locally, yet in a low population, so seeing them is sheer luck. The ‘domestic’ ferret is very similar. I kept a polecat x ferret male for several years, taking him for walks on a lead. He was mightily cute and featured in the Andover Advertiser several times.
Polecats feed principally on rabbits, but do take earthworms and small mammals.
Stoat (Mustela erminea)
With the demise of the local rabbit population the stoat is seen less frequently. It is a species that follows its prey (rabbits, small mammals and birds) and can be found in many habitats. The large ex-warren on the site of the, now, Harewood Common was an excellent place to see the species. The warren is now gone and so too the stoats.
While polecats are often nocturnal, stoats (and weasels) hunt by sight during the day. Excess food can be stashed or carried back to the den. I have seen stoats climbing quite high into trees to search for young nestlings.
I have often seen stoats ‘dancing’. On one occasion a squirrel was lured out of a tree by the twisting, turning and acrobatic antics. However, the squirrel survived – it was a close thing!
Squirrel (Sciurus carolinensis)
A native of the eastern USA. I have seen them in northern Florida, where they are considerably smaller than their UK cousins.
Far heavier than the native red squirrel and they spend more time on the ground. Both aspects of their niche means they are likely to be caught by New Forest pine martens. The New Forest population is falling; not so around Andover, although the population does rise and fall from year to year.
Grey squirrels feed off nuts, buds and more tolerant of plant tannins than red squirrels, so can eat hazel and other nuts before they are ripe. This gives them an advantage in competition.
Young, born in dreys (tree nests), disperse in late spring and late summer. Dreys can be adopted by tawny owls.
This agile species is excellent in trees but can lose grip. I’ve witnessed three falling out of trees. In each case the animal shook itself down and soon ran off.
Dormouse (Muscardinus avellanarius)
We are living in a dormouse ‘hot spot’. However, finding signs of them can be demanding. I have looked in some areas on many occasions, with negative results, only to spot a nest sometime after. I have never found dormouse opened hazel nut shells even when the animal is present in the hazel woodland. For me, I find looking for discarded nests in November or December most rewarding. Look in hazel or blackthorn bushes.
Much of the local hazel is degenerate, in that it is no longer cut regularly and that diminishes the habitat for the species. A recently layered hedge or newly coppiced woodland are good locations to explore.
As a heavily protected species do not attempt to handle or disturb dormice or their nests.
Woodmouse (Apodemus sylvaticus) and yellow-necked mouse (Apodemus flavicollis).
These small rodents are ubiquitous in our woodlands, yet seldom seen by humans. Live trapping is used to determine their presence in a woodland. Longworth traps are the most efficient live traps, however, they need checking at four hour intervals (night and day) if shrews are not to be killed. The traps are expensive. Better to join the Mammal Society and to hire their stock … and do purchase their booklet on how to use the device effectively. Alternatively, purchase a wildlife camera and set out bait.
The woodmouse is most often the species that invades country residences in winter.
The species differ in size, with the yellow-necked mouse larger, and the woodmouse lacks a yellow collar.
The future of UK woodlands and bats – a vital link, Dr Carol Williams, Woodland Officer Bat Conservation Trust.
All 18 species of bat in the UK are dependent in some way on woodland, and some are woodland specialists. Woods are important for:
Food: Woods support more invertebrates than any other habitat. Large numbers are associated with native trees and with the complex and varied understory and ground flora, and others seek the sheltered woodland environment. Veteran trees have special importance, as does wet woodland, where the value for foraging increases still further. The breakdown of standing and fallen deadwood by invertebrates is a further source of prey species and in open glades and rides extra light allows different plants and invertebrates to thrive. Dense vegetation is important for the foraging styles of woodland specialist bats.
Landscape connectivity: Many UK bat species are reluctant to leave the cover and protection of features such as tree lines, hedges and woodland cover, as they move between their roost and the places in which they forage. Fragmentation of the landscape can be a serious issue for bats.
Roosts: Features such as woodpecker holes, rot holes, cracks, loose bark or ivy offer suitable roosting opportunities for our rarest group of bat species. Bats rely on trees for their roosts in which to spend both summer and winter and to mate and to have their young. Many of the features that make trees suitable for bat roosting are found in more mature trees.