No.81 - Winter - 1999/2000
|Mammals for the millennium
This millennium has seen major changes in the British mammal fauna. For example, in the twelfth century we lost the beaver but gained the rabbit -via the Normans. The wolf was last recorded in the eighteenth century, when the brown rat was introduced - probably from Russia. However, attitudes have been relatively slow in changing.
There were no fully protected mammals at the turn of the century and existing legislation was concerned mainly with protecting animals of the chase and owners' rights. In the mid-1950s most species were still common and widespread and not a cause for concern, although the post-war period of intensified agriculture was already leading to a serious loss of wild countryside. The 1970s saw a peak period for change, with public awareness increasing and conservation groups becoming more active. This period of dawning environmental appreciation culminated in the passing of the Wildlife and Countryside Act in 1981.
Despite growing concern and legislation, the effects of farming and development are still evident and we are continuing to lose mammal species - the most recent being the mouse-eared bat, which was declared extinct in 1991. Today wild mammals form a mere three per cent of the mammal mass in Britain. Despite this, Britain does support an impressive number of mammals for an island this size, including some 44 terrestrial mammals, 12 bats and 16 species of marine mammals, as well as various vagrant species.
Most mammal species are harmless, shy, elusive or nocturnal - and frequently all four. They are therefore unlikely to arouse attention to themselves, are difficult to observe and are thus often under-recorded. Records for some mammals exist because: they are perceived to have an economic impact, like badgers; they are quarry species, like hares; they have an economic value, like deer; they have an impact on the countryside as non-native species, like the American mink.
Some receive more attention than others because they are regarded as cute, like the dormouse, or are easily recognisable and more frequently seen, like the hedgehog. The diligent and devoted have to record mammals by other signs: visual clues, distinctive smells and occasional calls. This summer saw the re-launch of the Trust's Mammal Group and a number of events have been held to encourage "mammal detectives". The Mammal Group aims to record all mammals - not only the rare species but the common as well, which are ironically less well recorded. We know more about the otter in Cornwall than we do about the field vole, which plays such a vital role in the food chain and which is itself currently believed to be in decline. We are hoping that with enough support the Environmental Records Centre will be able to produce a Mammal Atlas for Cornwall. This will help greatly towards protecting the mammal fauna in the county, which we can only do effectively if we know where species occur.
Despite changing attitudes, the reintroduction of mammal species in Britain is still viewed with disdain. Reintroductions do demand meticulous research, planning, monitoring, money and some luck. It can be argued, though, that since the loss of mammals is likely to have been due to human activities, we have a moral responsibility to return them and restore biodiversity's balance. While there is talk of restoring wild boar or beavers, in Cornwall there is a far more immediate candidate for reintroduction - the water vole. Of all the British mammals, this one is suffering the greatest decline and it is alarming that a much loved and once ubiquitous creature has declined so dramatically. To protect this species, the Mammal Group wants to survey possible water vole refuges in the year 2000, so please contact me on (01872) 245514 with details of any historical and current sites. Together we hope to prevent the water vole from becoming the first mammal to become extinct in the new millennium - its future, and that of the other mammals, is in our hands.
Contents - Wild Cornwall - No.81 - Winter - 1999/2000
Index Wild Cornwall Magazines
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