Sep 26

The last decade has been a mix of highs and lows for some of Britain’s most distinctive mammals, according to the tenth annual report by the People’s Trust for Endangered Species (PTES).

Photo of Scottish wildcat resting in woodland

Populations of the Scottish wildcat are now estimated at fewer than 400 animals, making it ‘Critically Endangered’ in the UK.

The report, entitled ‘The State of Britain’s Mammals’, highlights mixed results for many species, including endangered populations of the Scottish wildcat.

However, according to David Macdonald, Professor of Wildlife Conservation at the University of Oxford and co-author of the report for the last 10 years, we should not be pessimistic. Conservationists are hopeful that past successes can guide future efforts to protect some of Britain’s best-loved mammal species.

If one could roll back and look at what in 2001 we might have expected the picture to be, I think it’s amazingly positive,” says Macdonald.

Getting the public involved

Photo of hedgehog in grass

The hedgehog has declined in the UK from 30 million in the 1950s to an estimated 1.5 million 40 years later.

Public involvement has been a huge boost to mammal monitoring in Britain.

The hedgehog, for example, has benefitted significantly from public concern over declines in its numbers. The public participated in a national ‘Hogwatch’ survey in 2006, making conservation charities aware that hedgehogs were declining. Further monitoring confirmed substantial declines, with numbers having plummeted from 30 million hedgehogs in the 1950s to an estimated 1.5 million in the 1990s.

As a result, conservationists are now working to reduce the amount of pesticides used in agriculture and to protect habitat in rural areas. The hedgehog has also been included on the government’s Biodiversity Action Plan.

This year, more than 15,000 people joined the Hedgehog Street campaign, and worked with their neighbours to improve urban habitats for the hedgehog and other urban mammals.

Amateurs and enthusiasts have also been getting involved with numerous other national monitoring surveys, and their involvement has vastly improved data on many more species, from bats to dormice. The huge increase in the quantity of data on mammals has allowed conservation efforts to become increasingly targeted for species needing support.

Conservation success

Photo of common otter adult and cubs

Despite nearly disappearing from the British countryside in the 1970s, the otter has now returned to every county in England.

Over the past decade there have been a number of conservation success stories for Britain’s mammals and, according to Mike Richardson, Chair of Trustees for PTES, these success stories serve as indicators of far-reaching change.

The otter, for example, is just one species which has made a comeback in Britain’s waterways, and this year it was announced that the otter has now returned to every county in England.

The remarkable recovery of the otter has been attributed to bans on pesticides in the 1980s and improvements in river water quality.

You could take a very simplistic good news story – we’ve got more otters – but if you actually think about that, what that means is we’ve got hundreds of miles of cleaner rivers and streams and waterways,” says Richardson.

The otters are simply reflecting a huge improvement in major habitat change in the UK which must be affecting a whole myriad of other species.”

Tough challenges ahead

Despite the conservation successes of some species, the authors of the report make it clear that the next decade will hold far greater challenges, with bigger and more difficult issues to tackle.

These include problems such as trying to balance agriculture and biodiversity, contending with the issue of badgers and bovine TB, and attempting to mitigate the problems facing one of Britain’s most iconic mammals, the red squirrel.

End of the red squirrel?

Photo of red squirrel feeding in winter coat

The iconic red squirrel has suffered a dramatic decline of more than 50% in Britain over the past 50 years.

According to scientists, the future of Britain’s red squirrel is far from bright. The red squirrel has declined by more than 50% over the past 50 years, largely due to the presence of the introduced grey squirrel, which arrived in Britain from North America. The grey squirrel competes with the red squirrel for food and habitat, as well as carrying the squirrel pox virus which has decimated native red squirrel populations.

Despite trapping and culling programmes of grey squirrels in some areas, ecologists predict that the red squirrel will soon only exist in areas inaccessible to greys. Conservation action plans have highlighted key survival sites, mostly conifer forests in the Scottish highlands. Grey squirrels are known to dislike conifer forests, meaning that these will be an essential refuge for the red squirrel if it is to survive in Britain. Scientists are also continuing to work on a vaccine to eliminate squirrel pox.

Read more in the BBC article about the state of Britain’s mammals.

Find out more about the People’s Trust for Endangered Species.

Read the full ‘State of Britain’s Mammals’ report.

Search for more British mammals on ARKive.

Helen Roddis, ARKive Species Text Author