It’s easy to feel a bit gloomy about the state of Britain’s wildlife. According to the groundbreaking State of Nature Report, 60% of our species have declined over the last 50 years and 31% have declined strongly. But it’s not all bad news. Conservation efforts have saved many animals from the brink of extinction in Britain, which are now beginning to make a real comeback. Humans are reintroducing species that we once killed off and new animals are arriving, making the most of our newly warmer and wetter climate. Here are a handful species that are bucking the trend and are actually on the increase in Britain.
Pine Martens and Polecats
A couple summers ago I lived in a house which was graced by pine martens. They seemed to enjoy the gooseberry bush outside our living room window, and would bring along kits to feed and frolic. One time, a girl who was staying with us was in such a rush to see them that, as she bounded over to the window, she managed to kick me in the face (that was her excuse anyway).
Which just goes to show that this once despised animal is now beloved by humans.
Pine martens were brought to the brink of extinction through human persecution. Pine martens eat all sorts of things, so traditionally gamekeepers did not really like having them around. Fortunately a few martens managed to cling on in the remotest Scottish glens and forests, and tiny strongholds of north England and Wales. Now that pine martens aren’t really persecuted any more they appear to be thriving.
This year pine martens have been recorded breeding in Wales for the first time since the First World War, thanks to a reintroduction scheme spearheaded by the Vincent Wildlife Trust. There are recent reports of pine martens from Shropshire and Lancashire, and, somewhat bizarrely, even the New Forest (apparently there was always a tiny population that somehow managed to survive there, somehow).
Meanwhile, polecats are on the march too. Polecats are pine martens’ less popular cousins. Their story is somewhat muddier, as they seem to have bred with feral ferrets, but the essentials are the same. Persecuted to near extinction, they clung on in the Welsh borders. Now that they are not being persecuted they are turning up all over the country.
A rather cute little coloniser from France, this one. Tree bumblebees were first recorded in Britain in 2001, and since then have managed to make it as far as the Scottish borders. Bees are under pressure at the minute, so it can only be good news that a new species to our shore is making itself at home.
Being a tree loving species, tree bumblebees have become partial to making nests in people’s birdboxes. If you do find that they have colonised a birdbox in your garden, it is best to leave them there. After all, they aren’t doing any harm, and they definitely are pollinating all of your busy lizzies for you.
All the Herons
If you want to see what Britain’s nature will look like in the not too distant future, then head on over to the Avalon marshes in Somerset. This is a huge network of nature reserves and farms and marshes which lies a stone’s throw away from hippy paradise Glastonbury. Here you can listen to nightingales, watch hunting marsh harriers and hobbies and, for some reason, hear the peculiar croaking of Iberian water frogs (no one’s entirely sure how they got there, but they are fitting in just fine).
The Avalon marshes are also the best place in Britain to find herons. Britain’s largest population of bitterns can be found in the marshes, as can grey heron and little egret. Add a quickly expanding population of great white egret (always a shockingly large animal, no matter how many times you see them), along with reports of breeding little bittern plus regular sightings of squacco heron, night heron and purple heron and you begin to see that something special is going on.
Herons of all types are staging something of a prolonged invasion of Britain. It started in 1989, when little egrets took our shores by force. Back in 2008 cattle egrets staged a mini invasion, and hung around to breed in Somerset. Spoonbills, another wonderful, wacky creature, have set up shop once or twice at Holkham in Norfolk, and have begun wintering in Britain in big numbers, but again they are proving slow to really start colonising.
Then there are the birds that are sort of like herons but not really. Common cranes (like herons but more impressive) have been reintroduced to sites close to the Avalon marshes, and have just succeeded in rearing young. Cranes have also decided to breed once or twice in Aberdeenshire, and the entirely natural population in Norfolk seems to be a fine fettle. Glossy ibis continue to turn up in southern marshes, as do black-winged stilts. White storks tried breeding in 2014 for the first time in 600 years.
What do most of these birds have in common? They are strong fliers, pretty clever and quick to colonise new areas of habitat. Most of them also happen to have lived here before, before hunting, habitat loss and the Little Ice Age put paid to them. Welcome home!
Dragonflies and Damselflies
While a significant proportion of British wetlands are in poor shape, subject to pollution, invasive plants and animals and draining, other areas have made real gains in both quality and quantity (thanks in no small part to the EU, FYI). Moreover, people seem to be coming round to the idea that if they keep an area of wetland wet then it stops things like flooding happening in their houses.
In any case, small winged creatures are winging their way over the English channel and setting up shop in wetlands from Devon to Yorkshire. Willow emerald damselfly and small red-eyed damselfly seem to be the real winners so far, but numbers of the spectacular hairy dragonfly and lesser emperor are also increasing year on year.
My favourite animal in this list, hobbies are truly special creatures. These elegant, exotic little falcons specialise in hunting dragonflies, and have risen spectacularly in numbers in the past twenty years.
Hobbies aren’t the only birds of prey doing well in Britain. In fact, with the exceptionally notable exception of hen harriers and golden eagles, you could be forgiven for thinking that British raptors are enjoying something of a renaissance. Marsh harriers have responded hugely well to conservation efforts, now being found right the way up the east coast into Tayside in Scotland. White-tailed eagles are expanding in both population and distribution, with outlying, well protected pairs in Aberdeenshire and Orkney. Ospreys go from strength to strength, as do goshawks, red kites, buzzards and sparrowhawk. Peregrines are making their presence felt in urban areas, proving that behavioural adaptation and evolution are distinctly not the same thing.
It has been seven years since beavers were introduced to Knapdale Forest as part of a trial reintroduction scheme. A group of conservation bodies including Scottish Natural Heritage, Scottish Wildlife Trust and Forestry Commission Scotland got together to see what would happen if they put some beavers in Scotland. Last year, they published their findings, and we are still waiting on the Scottish government to get around to looking at them.
It’s also been ten(ish) years since a local miscreant released a few beavers illegally into the river Tay, a few miles down the way from the official reintroduction site. No one’s entirely sure how long they’ve been there because the miscreant remains shrouded in a thin veil of anonymity, and has therefore declined to tell us.
In any case, their population has gone from strength to strength. As many as 150 beavers now live around Tayside. I’ve seen them – they’re adorable, and doing a pretty good job of rewilding the river.
British beavers’ current problem is one of, shall we say, legislative taxonomy. They are not legally classed as a British species, so they have no official protection. Farmers are shooting them, including pregnant mothers, which has led to outrage in local communities which have become rather fond of their new neighbours.
A similar venture is going on in Devon on the rather lovely River Otter (otters, incidentally, being another species going from strength to strength). Again, a population was ‘accidentally’ set loose, and again local people were delighted, and again local farmers were fairly nonplussed. That population is now being closely monitored by Devon Wildlife Trust. The irony is that, now that the population has been saved, legitimate, government-backed reintroductions are taking place to bolster the genetic diversity of the ‘illegal’ population.
Meanwhile, the Scottish population seems to be thriving, and expanding their distribution. Actually finding them is currently still a bit tricky, and information on their whereabouts is naturally sensitive, but the locals all seem to know the best places to go.
You know how food goes in and out of fashion? Like how a couple years ago everyone was eating pulled pork, even though it was just overcooked pig in gloopy barbecue sauce? Well, back in the Eighties there was a fashion for eating wild boar.
Lots of farmers started farming them, because times were tough because times are always tough for farmers. But wild boar are notoriously difficult to keep, requiring huge fences and such. And then people stopped eating boar. So a lot of them escaped, or were just turned loose.
Then for a long time nothing happened. Or at least no one really noticed anything happening, because wild boar are pretty shy and can be remarkably elusive creatures.
Suddenly we all woke up a couple of years ago and realised we have a pretty large population of wild boar in the country.
It turns out that Britain’s woodlands make for unnaturally good habitat for wild boars. They don’t contain wolves or humans who hunt boar for a pastime. They are much warmer in winter than most of their continental counterparts. Boars are pretty much designed to make the most of this, being ridiculously fast breeders and intelligent enough to exploit any opportunities that humans throw at them. There are now big populations in Kent and the Forset of Dean, with other populations popping up all over the place. Data is limited but studies of populations in Sweden seem to suggest the boar are pretty good for woodland diversity.
Not that wild boar are universally liked. Gardeners hate them because they turn up their lawns, as do farmers. Also they can be pretty aggressive, and have been known to kill pet dogs. Like beavers, their legal status is a bit in limbo.
Wild boar actually is pretty tasty, and there can be no denying that at some point their population will need to be controlled. So it looks like soon enough truly wild British boar will indeed be back on the menu.
As well as being nice stories to hear in a time of ecological disaster, these species also tell us a lot about the state of British natural world:
- Generalists do better than specialists in times of mass extinction. If you are clever and adaptable then you can exploit new challenges. If your habitat requirements are very specific then you are likely to be ‘on your way out’.
- Good means of distribution: all the species mentioned here are mobile. Either they can fly or they have gotten moved places by people or are pretty quick walkers. This means that they can colonise new areas of suitable habitat quickly. Species which cannot do this, like some butterflies and wildflowers, are unlikely to face ecological challenges well.
- It is getting warmer and wetter: species that like a warmer and wetter climate are suddenly doing well here, so it stands to reason that Britain is getting warmer and wetter. Get used to it.
- A softening of public opinion: species that were formerly hated are now finding themselves beloved. This bodes well for the future of Britain’s wildlife, which relies on the whims and caprices of Britain’s human population for its continued survival.
- Almost all species which are expanding their range in Britain are doing so from the south northwards. The one true exception on this list is the pine marten, which is moving from north to south. Any more you can think of? Write a comment and let us know.
- Recolonisation: for a lot of species, it is not so much that they are moving into new territories, but rather that they are recolonising areas that they once lived in. Birds like white stork, night heron and common crane used to breed in Britain in big numbers, but hunting, habitat loss and persecution drove them to extinction. So it’s not that we humans are facilitating a great new era for British biodiversity – it’s just that we are now allowing species that used to be here to recover.
- Investment from wildlife charities and government: Conservation does work! Almost all species that are now doing well owe at least some part of their success to conservation efforts. Bitterns, for example, are now thriving specifically because of a huge conservation effort. Unfortunately conservation costs a lot of money, involves massive shifts of public opinion, and takes dedicated people devoting their lives to a cause they believe in.
Any more species that are doing well near you? Let us know, leave us a comment.
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