Early August, and a blizzard raged across my garden! Only it wasn’t a blizzard of snow, it was a blizzard of thistledown urged on by an energetic westerly breeze. Thousands of thistle seeds were seeking to colonise places wherever the wind was to take them and nature’s various systems for dispersal were clearly working well.
There are many ways in which plants increase their range. Some such as burrs stick to animal coats and are therefore transported unknowingly by passing animals. Thistles rely on the wind to carry them to new ground. Somewhere to the east of here they will come to rest and create new beds of thistles, providing of course, that someone doesn’t immediately get out the herbicide and snuff them out!
I’m sure that we use too many herbicides and pesticides because the insects of this world are in pretty desperate decline. Across this country, across Europe and apparently across the world, insect populations are in a serious situation, a fact that should worry all of us, for of course these are the pollinators and as such are therefore a vital cog in the wheel of life. Their disappearance threatens all other life and indeed, that is not our only worry. Recent reports suggest a downward trend in animal life too and we are already aware of the serious decline in farmland birds. The vibes are not good.
The most threatened British wild mammal is the wildcat, better known in some quarters as the Scottish wildcat on account of the fact that the few remaining pure wildcats are here in Scotland. Once, the wildcat was present throughout the whole of Britain but it seems that the problem is hybridisation with feral cats which has brought a dramatic downturn in true wildcat numbers. Apparently wildcats willingly breed with feral cats and so true wildcat blood is naturally depleted. In trying to address this problem, experts have selected the Ardnamurchan peninsular as a testing ground, with any feral cats there having either been destroyed or neutered.
It is known that this is a part of Scotland where true wildcats still live so that is why this highly important trial is being held there. At present, there is a variety of figures bandied about regarding the number of pure wildcats still in existence in various parts of Scotland. I’ve seen estimates as low as double figures when it comes to assessing the number of pure wildcats at large in the Scottish landscape but I’ve also seen figures in the hundreds. The bald fact is that whichever figure you accept, there aren’t very many! The situation of the wildcat is therefore perilous and frankly we will be very lucky to see them survive. Perhaps now is the time to be grateful for the existence of wildlife parks, for many of them are prepared to engage in captive breeding programmes for later release into the wild.
However, there is also concern about other mammals and in recent times much publicity has been given to the downward slide in hedgehog numbers. I have seen it suggested that badgers are responsible for their decline, however, as badgers and hedgehogs have co-existed for thousands of years, I completely disregard this as utterly implausible. Judging by the evidence I have seen the main killer of hedgehogs is surely auto motoris! We all know that hedgehogs have a superb defence system - when threatened they simply roll up and present a very prickly obstacle. It is also known that badgers, with their enormously strong clawed feet, are capable of unrolling a hedgehog although I have personally never seen evidence of this. However, when confronted with a car, the rolling up tactic palpably doesn’t work as all too often we see very clearly. There may be other reasons for hedgehog decline which could, in some respects, bring us back to the over-use of pesticides and herbicides. I’m afraid that these poisonous substances readily pass down the food chain and again I express the opinion that we use too many such products.
Those same poisons may also be affecting our bats which of course rely on insects for food. The greater mouse-eared bat is thought to be as critically endangered as the wildcat and therefore as a creature so categorized may also be almost on the verge of extinction. The Barbastelle and the Serotine bats are considered to be ‘vulnerable’ whilst the Nathusius pipistrelle and the Leister’s bat are regarded as ‘near threatened’.
One of the more familiar animals, the mountain hare, is also said to be under severe threat and of course these animals are the subject of annual culls in parts of the Scottish Highlands. Mountain hares carry a tick which is known to infest red grouse and that is apparently the reason for pretty widespread culling. Grouse moors have a lot to answer for! Equally at risk are harvest mice, the smallest of our native mice although I know that serious efforts are currently being made to conserve them. Surprisingly, the Orkney vole is another animal for which there is concern along with the hazel dormouse, a resident of the south of England.
Oddly enough, the red squirrel is also listed as endangered, a category which surprises me, for they are relatively common in Scotland. In this airt at least, I have witnessed a total transformation, for forty years ago this area was hoaching with alien grey squirrels which readers will remember were introduced from North America in the latter part of the nineteenth century. The greys, being more aggressive and larger, have kicked the reds out of very many parts of the UK. However, the arrival of pine marten in this area, once themselves uncomfortably close to extinction, has seen a marked decline in the grey squirrel numbers and a re-assertion of the dominance of red squirrels. Now, as far as I can tell, there are no grey squirrels in this vicinity.
The simple fact is that grey squirrels, being substantially heavier and fractionally less agile, are easier for the pine martens to catch and indeed it seems that when the martens first arrived locally, they immediately targeted the slower greys. However, red squirrels are as rare as hen’s teeth in many parts of England where still the grey dominates. It will be interesting to see what happens following the recent introduction of pine marten to the Forest of Dean in Gloucestershire. Perhaps there, the grey squirrel’s days are also numbered!
Similarly, I find it curious that the beaver is also regarded as endangered, for despite the fact that they were extinct for several centuries, they have been officially re-introduced to both England and Scotland in recent years, albeit that here in Scotland in Perthshire, beavers had been unofficially released some years ago. The re-introductions promise that the number of beavers will gradually increase further as the years pass.
I am encouraged that at least we recognize that all these creatures and others are at various stages on these lists. There are perhaps too many of us demanding more than the environment we occupy can cope with. It seems that we always want more and more space, more development and perhaps at times too much profit … all at the expense of those creatures with which we share this planet. It really is all about balance and I fear that at the moment, we are not achieving that. We have been warned!