The hedgehog, the squirrel, the barn owl, the European common frog…there are many iconic species that spring to mind when you consider British wildlife. However, what many British residents may not realise is that walking among us is a variety of exotic species that through a multiplicity of means, have entered the UK and permanently set up camp.
Over the years, the UK has become host to a variety of unusual species including (and certainly not limited to) terrapins, parakeets, scorpions and wallabies. Due to reasons such as deliberate introduction, accidental introduction, through their own migration or even due to currently unknown methods, many exotic species have entered Britain and are continuing to flourish…
The Tree Bumblebee
Most of us are aware of the decline of the UK’s bumblebee species; at least two of the 24 British bumblebee species have disappeared and another six have become dangerously threatened over the last century. However, one bumblebee species that has only arrived in the UK within the last decade is currently increasing and colonising Britain at a rapid rate- it is known as the tree bumblebee (Bombus hypnorum).
It is thought that the tree bumblebee began to spread throughout the UK through natural means, having arrived from France. Experts have even questioned why it took the bees so long to arrive, given the proximity and similarities between the UK and their native French habitat.
Instead of relying on ground-nesting sites, like many UK species, this species prefers to nest in trees, as their name would suggest. As a result, the tree bumblebee has been making use of the many bird nestboxes that have been placed in trees across Britain.
Terrapins and Alligator Snapping Turtles
Terrapins are usually found in habitats such as US swampland; however following the 1990s trend of owning a pet terrapin, many were dumped in UK lakes once they had grown too big to easily care for. Also, in 2010 a very rare alligator snapping turtle was discovered to be residing in a reservoir in the West Midlands. Since then, a further 20 snapping turtle individuals at least are thought to have been living in areas in Kent, London and West Yorkshire.
These species may pose a particular risk not only to native UK species, but also to children and visitors to the locations in which they have been dumped, due to the strength of their bite. Both species are known to exhibit signs of aggression, especially when fully grown, and can live for up to 20 years. There are new concerns about potential increases in dumping of terrapins and snapping turtles in UK lakes during late 2014-2015, due to the release of the new Mutant Ninja Turtles film this year, the franchise of which was initially suggested to be the cause of the influx in pet terrapins being purchased and subsequently dumped in the UK during the 80s/90s.
— Wildlife Sightings (@wildlife_uk) October 11, 2014
Ring-necked parakeets are a surprisingly common inhabitant of the British Isles, particularly in London. The parakeets historically resided in sub-Saharan Africa and Asia but were brought to Europe as they were a popular pet with the Romans. Since then, they have made it to England and have flourished greatly; one estimate is that in south-east England alone, there could be populations of between 32,000-50,000 parakeet individuals.
The birds can be identified by their long tails, red beaks, pink and black rings around the face and green colouring. During flight, the species has pointed wings and uses its long tail to ensure a steady, swift flight. The parakeets reside in flocks that can number hundreds, especially at roosting sites, and are very vocal. There are thought to be around 8,600 breeding pairs currently in the UK. Sightings of the birds can be recorded at BirdTrack, which is part of the BTO.
The red-necked wallaby has established wild populations in Scotland, on the Isle of Man and other locations across the UK. The wallabies first began living in Scotland when two pairs were taken from Whipsnade Zoo and released in 1975; the pairs carried on breeding and had created a population of 26 individuals by 1993. The group currently living on the Isle of Man are descendants of a pair that escaped from a wildlife park in the area during the 1970s, and also went on to flourish in the wild.
Other colonies include those found in the Peak District, East Sussex, West Sussex and Hampshire, which have thought to have been established from as early as the year 1900. The groups appear to be continuing to thrive and live harmoniously alongside native UK species.
Raccoon Dogs and Siberian Chipmunks
In the 1970s, some Siberian chipmunk individuals were released by pet owners. Since then, a population of around 1,000 individuals is thought to be living freely in the UK. There have been some concerns that diseased Siberian chipmunks could reach the UK from France, where their potential for carrying lyme disease caused particular issues during 2009. The species’ ability to breed rapidly means that pet owners are encouraged to take strict measures to ensure that individuals do not escape.
There have also been some sightings of Racoon Dogs in Berkshire and Scotland; this species is usually native to Russia and Asia but has grown in popularity as a pet in the UK over the last few years, due to their cute and fluffy appearance. However, many pet owners failed to acknowledge the aggression that the species can exhibit, causing many raccoon dog individuals to simply be released into the wild. This poses a significant problem for UK wildlife as the species can harbour diseases such as rabies and tape worms, and is also a vicious and relentless hunter of small mammals, amphibians and bird eggs.
Originating from north-west Africa and Southern Europe, it is thought that over 13,000 yellow-tailed scorpions may currently reside in the south-east of England, largely on the Isle of Sheppey, Kent and partially in London. The scorpions have also been sighted on the north Devon coast for around 120 years, having thought to have arrived on Italian ships carrying stonework during the 1800s. The scorpions seem to seek out the brickwork, as it retains heat from the sun, and continue to reside on and in masonry structures in the UK . So far, the species has not yet been seen to spread, appearing content to reside in their current established colonies.
A small population of Brazilian aardvarks, or ‘coatis’, is thought to be currently residing in Cumbria. Although not much is currently known about the species inhabiting the UK, it is thought that the coatis have escaped from pet owners or zoos and have begun living in the wild, despite being ill-equipped to cope with British environments. There have been a number of UK sightings confirming the presence of this species in Cumbrian woodlands.
Occasional visitors to UK waters include large sunfish, who seek to take advantage of UK jellyfish species as prey, and even Great white sharks. Richard Peirce, of the Shark Trust, claims he finds it surprising that Britain does not yet have an established population of the notorious shark species, as the conditions in UK seas are very similar to their favoured haunts elsewhere.
Another aquatic species discovered in two ponds in Lochaber, was the North American signal crayfish. As a response to this discovery however, the Scottish Environment Protection Agency, Scottish Natural Heritage and the Highland Council produced a collective sum of £76,000 to poison the population, as the species is considered to be a severe threat to native British insect, frog and small fish species.
A rare wildlife sighting was that of a leatherback turtle individual, spotted to be living off the west coast of Scotland in 2011. The individual was estimated to be around 1.5m long by researchers of the Hebridean Whale and Dolphin Trust, and caused a great deal of excitement as the species is both considered to be the world’s biggest turtle species and one of the most critically endangered turtle species. In 2002, a rare green turtle individual was also discovered on the coast of Loch Inver.
In Inverness during 1980, a puma that had been living in the wild was captured and placed in a local wildlife park. Since the occurrence, there have been other indicators that more big cat individuals could be residing in the Highlands. In 2010 in Sutherland, a police warning was issued after several reports of big cats in the area; in 2011 in the same area, police also investigated reports of a big cat killing sheep. There have been number of alleged big cat sightings around this area over the years, often close together in time. This suggests that potentially, there could be some truth behind the perception that there are a few established big cat individuals residing in the UK- current estimates suggest there could be as many as 50 wild-living individuals. There are many suggestions for how and why big cats may be potentially residing in the UK, and although there are claims of evidence proving it, the subject is still contested and their presence has not yet been solidly confirmed.
Wild boar and free-roaming pigs
In some parts of the Highlands, there have also been sightings of wild boar and wild free-roaming pigs, which are a hybrid species of boars and domestic pigs. In 2011, feral wild boars were also spotted to be foraging in the gardens of properties in Invermoriston. It is estimated that around 1,000 wild boar individuals, native to France and Sweden, now live in the UK, as a result of escaping from British farms.
Dr Toni Bunnell of the University of Hull suggests that there is a vital need to conduct more research into the presence of non-native wildlife species residing in the UK. He says
“We are seeing more and more exotic animals in the UK. This is partly due to climate change and partly because a growing number of pets are being released into the wild.”
“We need to be aware of what’s out there and we need to make sure we are closely monitoring the situation. Some of these species, if left unchecked, could pose a threat to native species and reduce the biodiversity of our wildlife.”
Related concerns have included particular emphasis on the damage inflicted by ‘alien species’ such as muntjac deer and wild boar, which have been causing crop damage and posing issues for native UK wildlife.
It is evident that there are many non-native species currently residing in Britain; where some of these species may continue to remain almost ‘secret’, others will be able to colonise and spread across the UK. Although it may be a novelty to see a species that is usually regarded as foreign or exotic, there can be momentous repercussions on the UK’s native species. As a result, experts encourage all exotic species sightings to be reported to the appropriate bodies (organisations which are usually easily accessible to contact via the internet) and that pet owners should take careful consideration about the species they are keeping/intending to keep and that they make every effort to avoid releasing potentially detrimental species.
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