Arguably even more mythical than woodland fairies, are woodland wallabies. Having been imported to the U.K. for over a century to act as a popular attraction for many wildlife parks and zoos across the nation, they have occasionally escaped, only to disappear completely into the surrounding environment and evade the finest animal detectives of the British empire. They now breed amongst themselves here and live happily in areas we have never occupied, seldom allowing people to notice them. People do occasionally spot one though, which makes hot news for the local papers. Only the lucky saw this headline in The Telegraph in 2017:
‘I opened the curtains and there it was’: Mother spots wallaby roaming wild on her housing estate.
So how is it that these exotic marsupials are thriving in the generally bitter British environment? You may assume they originated from a completely different environment to that of the U.K. – maybe right now you’re picturing them hopping along the side of a dirt track in mid-West Australia. However, this particular species (the red-necked wallaby (Macropus rufogriseus), named ‘red-necked’ after the distinctive red fur on the upper part of their backs), is from the southeast of Australia and Tasmania, where the weather is temperate and experiences similar seasons and temperatures to the U.K. So they’re not accustomed to deserts, and they don’t mind the rain, so the move actually suits them quite nicely! Another probable reason for why they are able to live so comfortably in the U.K. is the lack of predators. Apart from a few wolves recently reintroduced to the Scottish highlands, where it’s too cold for wallabies to survive anyway, the only predators are foxes, predatory birds, and domestic cats. There are no wild predators large enough to take down a fully grown red-necked wallaby, and the young are normally kept out of harm’s way in the pouch of their mother.
The largest known population in the U.K. is on the Isle of Man, which is thought to have originated from a few escapees of Curraghs Wildlife Park in the 1970’s. Although there may be many more living in England and Scotland (escapees from animals parks such as Whipsnade and Woburn), sightings are far less frequent, resulting in a potentially inaccurate estimate for the mainland population size. Theoretically, this is because they do not tend to settle in one place for long periods of time. They are mostly solitary, do not nest, and graze where the grass takes them – so being restricted to a tiny island like the Isle of Man increases the likelihood of a sighting.
I went to the Isle of Man with a friend to investigate and returned with great success! In the Curragh wetlands, we could hear the thuds of wallaby hops occasionally around us, but rarely saw the source of the noise. In total, we saw 10 wallabies in just a couple of hours, one of which had a joey. As we approached the wetlands, we didn’t cross a single fence, gate, or wall – we simply followed a dirt track from the main road into a wooded area in the north of the island. These wallabies are truly wild. To see and hear them in a dense British woodland is an odd and exciting experience.
In the past I have heard people express the belief that animals enjoy being kept in captivity because food is handed to them every day, they have daily cleaners, the best veterinary attention, and relatively private accommodation. To be fair, this does sound like a cushy lifestyle that would be hard for many people to turn down, but if it’s so great for other animals, why would these wallabies escape?
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