The wild animals of Britain keep themselves apart. Even bird life can be hard to spot; robins, blackbirds and pigeons are not shy, but others can be. Are wrens as rare as they appear to be, or do they just keep themselves to themselves? The bird species that are common have changed over the years; the humble sparrow has become quite a rarity as far as I am concerned, but this may be just my experience. We used to have flock of sparrows in our hedge, some 30 birds. These we fed on a daily basis, and their merry cheeping made the garden seem full of life. Then one day we were visited by a sparrow hawk. It only swooped on one bird, but all the others deserted our garden in terror, and they have never returned.
The absence of the cuckoo has a quite different cause, one that probably lies far away in Africa, where the cuckoo spends the winter. Some environmental cause may have prompted their decline. Cuckoos seems unpleasant characters to us sentimental humans; supplanting other birds by inserting their eggs into the nests of more dutiful parents, and the chicks killing their foster family’s young. However the cuckoo’s song was always the harbinger of spring. On 25 April 1973 I heard the cuckoo on a walk from Dunston to Humbleyard, and it was a welcome sound. Jays and magpies on the other hand, which we never saw when I was young, are now quite common – even in built-up areas.
Among the mammals that live wild in this country, rats and mice are everywhere; but while you may be aware of their presence, from their holes, tracks or smell, you do not often see them. Foxes and badgers come out at night; and while I have seen a fox, which occasionally come out in daylight, I must admit I have never seen a badger in the wild. Roe deer are sometimes glimpsed as you drive through the country, but for such a large animal they are surprisingly good at concealing themselves. There are red deer in Scotland, but in this post I am more interested in the wildlife that we have in East Anglia. The much smaller muntjac deer is quite common, even in relatively built-up areas, but is seldom seen. One used to cross the road when I cycled to work early in the morning; I didn’t often encounter it, but I could see its path through the undergrowth. The muntjac was introduced from China about a century ago. Rabbits are the most often seen wild animals, with grey squirrels coming a close second. Rabbits were introduced by the Normans (or perhaps the Romans) and grey squirrels rather more recently from North America. Nobody minds rabbits, but the other introduced species are more problematical.
Should we be reintroducing animals that died out on these shores centuries ago? My own opinion is no, at least as far as mammals go. The beaver has already made a re-appearance in rivers in the west country. They seem harmless enough, until they gnaw through your favourite tree and block the local stream in the process. Wild boar have escaped captivity and appear to be doing well in the woodlands of England; but we have become used to a tranquil countryside in England, and the prospect of having your pet dog gored while on a country walk is alarming. There is even talk of reintroducing the wolf. If wolves had survived from prehistoric times we would not contemplate their extinction in the 21st century, but happily the last native wolf was shot some 300 years ago. Although wolves are unlikely to attack people, they could well kill pets, and sheep farmers have a difficult enough time without having wolves prowling round their flocks.
When you consider the devastation wrought by the imported mink on the water vole population of England, you ought to think very carefully before upsetting the balance of nature in this country, and then decide against doing anything to disturb it. It is possible to return the country to its earlier state with respect to these imported creatures, as the story of the coypu in East Anglia proves, but it is difficult. This animal was a real pest when I was a young man, not to other animals in the coypu’s case, but to river banks. Having a habitat limited to waterways it was not impossible to hunt it down, but it was still an expensive and time-consuming undertaking. Eventually they were all wiped out in England. Fortunately this was possible as we are on an island. The coypu had been introduced to fur farms and went wild when some escaped. The same thing happened with the mink. Fur has lost it appeal to the fashion industry, and fur farms have become extinct, but the results of escaped livestock have proved rather longer lasting. The experience has been unfortunate to say the least.