The resident mammals of Dorset
- Credit: Archant
From inquisitive seals to boxing hares, Sally Welbourn introduces us to some of Dorset’s resident mammals
When dinosaurs roamed the earth 65 million years ago, the very first mammals scurried around beneath their feet. Many suffered the same fate as the dinosaurs, but a few survived. Humans are living proof of their success, but we also share our planet with many other mammals: they range in size from tiny bats to the mighty blue whale.
All mammals are warm blooded, they are able to feed their young with milk from mammary glands, and have hair or fur. In the UK, the biggest native mammal is the red deer, easily spotted by its silky red coat and the massive antlers sported by the males. There are five species of deer in Dorset: sika, roe and fallow are our main residents in the county, but there are also growing numbers of muntjac and red deer.
One mammal that is on most people’s wish list is the otter. Many of Dorset’s rivers such as the Stour now have families of otters that are regularly spotted, even in broad daylight. Smaller mammals you might see whilst out in the countryside, if you are sharp-eyed, are the weasel and stoat; to tell them apart, look for the black top on the end of the stoat’s tail.
If your garden is wildlife friendly, you’ll be even more likely to see native mammals such as the badger, fox or hedgehog, whether they are regular visitors, resident or simply passing through.
In the garden… Hedgehog
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Despite their numbers declining due to loss of habitat, hedgehogs are most commonly seen in parks and gardens where bushes and hedges are in abundance. Hedgehogs like to eat all kinds of invertebrates, as well as amphibians and bird’s eggs, but they’re particularly partial to beetles, earthworms and slugs, making them a gardener’s best friend. At this time of year hedgehogs will be preparing to hibernate for the winter, stocking up on food and putting on weight before their big sleep. Why not give them a helping hand and install a cosy hedgehog home in a quite spot in your garden? Piles of dry leaves are popular snoozing spots, so do check bonfires before lighting them in case a hedgehog has taken up residence.
On the coast… Seal
The seal is the UK’s largest carnivorous mammal. Both the common (or harbour) and grey seal can be seen in Dorset, and they are known for being sociable creatures. Encountering a seal is an amazing privilege, but their welfare must be your number one priority. Don’t attempt to feed it, or touch it, simply admire from a distance, despite their inquisitive nature! Common seals are found around sheltered shores and estuaries, where they haul themselves out to bask on sandbanks and beaches. When out of the water, they sometimes hold their body in a curved ‘banana’ position, with their heads and tail both in the air at the same time.
In the countryside… Hare
Cranborne Chase in east Dorset, and along Chesil Beach in west Dorset are good places to spot brown hares, grazing on vegetation or nibbling bark from young trees and bushes. Hares shelter in a ‘form’ - a shallow depression in the ground or grasses, but when disturbed, they can be seen bounding across fields often in a zig-zag pattern, using their powerful hind legs to propel them forwards. In early spring, hares are at their most visible as the breeding season encourages fighting, or ‘boxing’ out in the open fields.
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