Highs and lows for British mammals

This week the People's Trust for Endangered Species (PTES) publish their tenth annual report: The State of Britain's Mammals. The decade has held mixed results for some of our most distinctive species but conservationists are hopeful that past successes can guide future efforts.

How British mammal species are faring

Name Status Details Actions
European otter (c) Nick Garbutt / naturepl.com

Otter

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In the 1970s, otters were on the brink of disappearing from the British countryside. But this year it was announced that the freshwater-dwelling species had returned to every county in England.

Their recovery has been attributed to bans on pesticides in the 1980s and improvements in river water quality.

Habitats have been identified and improved with the creation of log piles and artificial "holts" - otter homes.

Tunnels have been dug underneath roads and fences have been installed to provide safe crossing points.

By-laws have been introduced to prevent the accidental drowning of otters in eel nets and crayfish traps.

Greater horseshoe bat (c) Jose B. Ruiz / naturepl.com

Greater horseshoe bat

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Greater horseshoe bats were frequently found in mines up until the early 20th Century, but as these mines were sealed, populations decreased substantially.

However, conservationists now say that the population of Britain’s largest bat species is increasing.

Maternity roosts and hibernation sites have been granted special protection.

Efforts are now concentrating on linking up woodlands, pastures and hedgerows to provide the bats with foraging pathways.

European water vole (c) 2010 photolibrary.com

Water vole

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Water vole populations dropped by as much as 90% in the 1990s, due to habitat loss and predation by American mink released from fur farms.

Charities working to protect them now report that expansions in the water voles' range are just about outweighing the declines.

Bankside habitats have been maintained and improved.

Programmes to control invasive mink have been carried out nationwide.

Hedgehog rolled in a ball (c) Jose Luis Gomez de Francisco / naturepl.com

Hedgehog

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Members of the public made conservation charities aware that hedgehogs were declining in 2006’s national "Hogwatch" survey.

Monitoring has confirmed substantial declines from 30 million in the 1950s to an estimated 1.5 million 40 years later.

Conservationists are working to reduce the amount of pesticides used in agriculture and protect habitat in rural areas.

This year, more than 15,000 people joined the Hedgehog Street campaign: working in collaboration with their neighbours to improve urban habitats.

Red squirrel (c) 2009 photolibrary.com

Red squirrel

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The iconic species have suffered a dramatic decline of more than 50% over the past 50 years.

Grey squirrels, introduced from North America, compete with the reds for food and habitat.

Greys also carry the infamous squirrel pox virus, which does not affect the greys but has decimated native red populations.

Conservation action plans have highlighted key survival sites, mostly conifer forests in the Scottish highlands.

Grey squirrels have been culled in areas to reduce competition.

Scientists are also developing a vaccine to tackle the squirrel pox virus.

Scottish wildcat (c) Pete Cairns / naturepl.com

Wildcat

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Populations of Scottish wildcats are now estimated at fewer than 400 animals, making them critically endangered.

Hybridisation with feral and domestic cats threatens to drive the species to extinction.

Efforts are focusing on raising awareness amongst local cat-owners to help maintain a "pure" population of wildcats.

A handful of wildlife parks are involved in a captive breeding programme to help boost numbers.

END OF THE RED?

Red squirrel (c) 2010 photolibrary.com

The future does not look rosy for Britain's red squirrels. Ecologists predict that despite the trapping and culling of their grey nemeses, reds will soon only exist in areas inaccessible to greys.

In England and Wales, red squirrels are only thought likely to survive on islands separated by large expanses of water such as the Isle of Wight and Anglesey.

More than 75% of Britain's estimated 160,000 red squirrels are now found in Scotland where the landscape has proven too challenging for invading greys to reach.

The grey squirrels' dislike of conifer forests has highlighted these habitats as essential refuges for reds.

Meanwhile, scientists continue to work on a vaccine to eliminate squirrel pox and give the native squirrels a fighting chance.

With several high profile species in decline in Britain and last year's global failure to meet biodiversity targets, you could expect conservationists to have a pessimistic view for the future.

But according to David Macdonald, Professor of Wildlife Conservation at the University of Oxford who has co-authored the report for the last 10 years, hope is not lost.

"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," he says.

Prof Macdonald cites the growth of "citizen science" as an enormous boost to mammal monitoring.

Public insight into a perceived decline in hedgehog numbers prompted scientific investigation that led to the species' inclusion on the government's Biodiversity Action Plan.

By embracing national monitoring surveys, amateurs and enthusiasts from around the country have vastly improved data on species, allowing conservation efforts to become increasingly targeted to the benefit of bats and hazel dormice alike.

"I think it's now widespread for people to consider the importance of science and evidence for informing decisions and making the best science-led policy," says Prof Macdonald.

Mike Richardson, Chair of Trustees for PTES, adds that conservation success stories serve as indicators of far-reaching change.

"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," he says.

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

Despite these successes, it is clear that the next decade will hold far greater challenges than the last.

"An increasing proportion of the issues are bigger and more difficult," explains Prof Macdonald.

Balancing agriculture and biodiversity, the issue of badgers and bovine TB and the fate of the increasingly beleaguered red squirrel are all examples of the controversial topics that remain unsolved.

Hedgehog at sunset (c) Artur Tabor / naturepl.com Will hedgehogs forage into the future?

In another contentious area, Prof Macdonald predicts that habitat management through the reintroduction of species such as beavers could receive more focus in the future.

"We could look at braver reconstructions - not just nostalgically to create a past that is gone but to create a future that is fit for purpose," he tells BBC Nature.

"Maybe we could walk the length of the Thames again through flood meadows and if so, could they be populated by beavers?"

Having recently celebrated raising £1m for mammal conservation, PTES vow to continue protecting species and to tackle ambitious targets but the survival of some familiar fauna remains in the balance.

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