The fight to preserve Derbyshire’s wildlife

Red deer stag during the rut, on moorland, Cervus elaphus, Derbyshire

Red deer stag during the rut, on moorland, Cervus elaphus, Derbyshire - Credit: Archant

Paul Hobson analyses the outlook for Derbyshire’s precious wildlife scene

The now rarely seen red squirrel

The now rarely seen red squirrel - Credit: Archant

In March this year the New Atlas of UK Mammals was released by the Mammal Society. This fantastic publication brings together a staggering 1.8 million records from an amazing array of societies and organisations, including the inspirational and inclusive Citizen Science scheme.

The book makes for fascinating, and in many cases alarming, reading. Headline quotes include the horrifying prediction that one quarter of the UK’s mammals may become extinct in the relatively near future and that 41% of our mammals have been in decline since 1970. On a more positive note it also states that 33% have shown no change in the same period, and 26% have actually increased.

Reading the Atlas from a Derbyshire perspective did tend to focus my mind and reflect on my own experiences and observations. One factor that brought back personal memories was the incredible difficulty in monitoring and predicting specific mammal populations. I studied Natural Environmental Science at Sheffield University in the late 1970s and spent quite a bit of my time learning a range of practical skills, one of which was how to estimate small mammal populations like those of bank voles or wood mice.

I remember just how time consuming the process was and how it had to be regularly repeated to gain any idea of population changes - and that was just in one single wood in Derbyshire. How you would then estimate for a whole county was fraught with so many assumptions. Large mammals like red deer are quite easy to count, particularly during the rut. However, other deer like our native roe and the introduced muntjac, both increasing quickly in Derbyshire, are quite secretive and easy to overlook.

Weasel, Mustela nivalis, on woodland floor, autumn, Sheffield

Weasel, Mustela nivalis, on woodland floor, autumn, Sheffield - Credit: Archant

In many cases actually seeing the mammal is quite difficult. Weasels and stoats are widespread across the whole of Derbyshire but both are very difficult to monitor because they are hard to see. How many times have you walked across moorland, farmland or woodland and seen a stoat or weasel? - yet I would hazard a guess that they were always present during your walks. Mammal recorders (from groups such as Derbyshire Mammal group and Staffs Mammal group) have to learn how to spot signs such as scat (poo) or footprints. We have also become far more advanced in technology with sophisticated camera traps and the more inventive walkway traps which record the footprints of mammals as they walk across a soft surface.

READ MORE: Saving our lapwings - the quest to preserve Derbyshire’s peewits

Mountain hare in summer coat, Lepus timidus, Peak District

Mountain hare in summer coat, Lepus timidus, Peak District - Credit: Archant

In terms of our own county the two most enigmatic mammals that we have lost in recent decades are the red squirrel and pine marten. The former is still in decline across the UK and the chances of it repopulating Derbyshire are very remote. However, there are glimmers of hope for the pine marten which is slowly increasing in Scotland and is being reintroduced into a small number of English counties. Given that persecution against it has reduced there is no reason why it won’t eventually reach Derbyshire. Its near relative, the more shy polecat, is doing exactly that now.

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Arguably the jewel in Derbyshire’s mammal crown is the mountain hare, our only native lagomorph, introduced in the late 19th Century. Interestingly, it was also introduced into a couple of other northern English counties at the same time, but only our population has survived. In their native Scotland mountain hares have been shot in huge numbers for many years until the Scottish government recently, after much pressure from, among others, wildlife photographers, has afforded it legal protection.

The Atlas states a number of really positive stories such as that of the otter, which has returned to every English county. The future looks really rosy for this stunning mammal. Deer on the whole are faring really well, even to the extent that in many areas red deer and muntjac are culled to reduce damage to vegetation. Badgers are one of our better monitored mammals, partly because of the threat of the cull - which still hangs over Brock’s neck in our county. The effects of the cull are devastating yet where it’s not present badger numbers are healthy.

However, putting successes to the side we should be alarmed at some of the Atlas’s results. Hedgehogs are now classed as vulnerable and have declined by 46%. A once familiar animal is in many places sadly absent. The time for widespread action is now. Water voles (another Derbyshire favourite) are also classed as vulnerable but they are arguably easier to help because their habitat is easier to monitor and far more definable - canals and waterways. It is not difficult to plan for their success whenever a canal or river is developed. It just requires the necessary will. Harvest mice are probably quite widespread and many groups run harvest mice nest searches, yet the converse is true for dormice. In England as a whole they have declined by 48% and their tenuous presence in our county is only due to a couple of introduction projects.

So what of the future for Derbyshire? Well, I guess we will find out in another 20 years when the next Atlas or State of Nature report is released. In the meantime, we can rejoice in our visible mammals such as our moorland red deer and mountain hares, our increasingly obvious roe deer and the more common, but no less exciting, glimpses of a fox or badger.

We can continue to monitor and learn why hedgehogs are declining and try to reverse the trend. We can argue for better waterways that support water voles and we can support the vital work of Derbyshire Wildlife Trust and the National Trust’s badger vaccination scheme, more important now than at any other time. And lastly, we can all be excited by the imminent return of the beaver to Derbyshire Wildlife Trust’s Willington wetlands in the Trent valley.

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