Born to be wild

Western Polecat (Mustela putorius)
Western Polecat (Mustela putorius)

Helga Hofmann Wild Animals of Britain & Europe
translated by Martin Walters
Collins Nature Guide, HarperCollins 1995

As we drove down a country road yesterday morning a familiar form crossed in front of us: a polecat. We recognised it by its colouring, the distinctive dark mask over its face, and by its size. What we weren’t familiar with was its gait, because the only previous time we’d seen one was after our field had recently been mowed for hay, and by then the poor creature was quite dead. The cat appeared interested in it, mainly because of the strong scent it had left behind — the second element of its Latin name Mustela putorius means ‘smelly’. We left it for other carnivores to feast on or for a passing buzzard to carry away. To identify it was just a matter of moments with this Collins Nature Guide, one of the excellent series from the publisher featuring full-colour photographs facing informative texts (others include, for example, flowers, trees, mushrooms & toadstools). Originally published in Germany by Gräfe and Unzer in the 1980s, this translation from the mid-nineties by Martin Walters also profits from the input of scientific consultant Dr Gordon Corbet, and has presumably retained its relevance in the intervening two decades because it continues to be re-issued.

The guide is arranged according to specific groupings, and though I won’t be discussing in detail the Pinnipeds (seals and walruses), Primates (Barbary Apes are only found on Gibraltar), Whales (including dolphins) or hooved mammals, I’ll concentrate my comments on the animals that we’ve seen in our own backyard, as it were.

First up are the Insectivores which, as it happens, don’t just confine their consumption to insects but also worms, slugs and snails. The Western Hedgehog just occasionally appeared as road kill near us but we’ve now spotted one appearing early morning near our raised vegetable beds, which is good news for us as they’ll go for the usual garden pests. Less good news, now that the field is mown, is that the cat is — literally — having a field day catching what must be Pygmy Shrews. Luckily she tends to stay near the house so more distant shrews (all about the size of mice) have a batter chance of surviving. The Mole, meanwhile, is much in evidence by the line of earth mounds it creates as it tunnels under the soil which make me think of miniature Bronze Age barrows. No dead chieftains are laid out or cremated under these, however: the odd cadaver appears by the field, though they apparently may be due not to predators but to rival males fighting to the death.

We’re no strangers to Bats but I have to say it has been difficult to identify them. Two appeared, one after the other, splashing in a water butt, presumably after emerging from a void in the house roof; they eventually flew away after I put them on a sunny window sill to dry out. No longer than my index finger and with rounded ears, they could have been Daubenton’s Bats but for their dark brown colour which makes me wonder if they were Brandt’s or Whiskered Bats. Other times I’ve rescued bats which have accidentally flown through open windows or doors in the early evening, and while one had longer ears and was significantly larger — a Serotine Bat? — I couldn’t confidently identify them. We see bats at dusk in the summer, naturally, not just around the house as they catch insects but also on the road since reputedly they use both these and hedges as waymarkers in their evening forays.

Rodents are numerous, of course, here as elsewhere. No Red Squirrels unfortunately, but the occasional cheeky Grey Squirrel who tries to outwit us over our placement of the bird feeder. When we had hens one determinedly pesky pest gnawed through the composite corrugate roof of the henhouse — twice — to get at the seed. We have a stream bordering our property, but if there are voles I’ve never seen them. The Common Rat also makes an appearance now and again, once notably when it slowly waddled past the cat. After the shock had passed, the cat pinned the rat down; the rat then played possum and, after the bored feline stalked away (well pleased with itself), rose, shook itself and waddled away in the opposite direction. Mice are no doubt in abundance around here, but unless the cat catches a Harvest Mouse or a Wood Mouse they pretty much keep out of sight.

I’d like to say that in this part of Wales Hares were in evidence but that simply isn’t the case, and the only example I’ve seen was one which dashed away not five yards from us in a field in Essex. The only Lagomorphs (a lovely word meaning ‘hare-shaped creatures’) we have here are the ubiquitous Rabbits, which scamper away as soon as we come upon them. They sometimes cause wry amusement as we drive home at night when they run helter-skelter down the road in the glare of the headlights, periodically stopping to check we’re still there before dashing off again, zigzagging to and fro for a hundred yards and more until they realise they can disappear up a bank or into a ditch.

I’ve already mentioned the Western Polecat, but they’re not the only Carnivores who have a reputation for predating on poultry. The Red Fox has a clearly-defined run along the bottom of the field when the grass is growing (where indeed the polecat was found) and it’s there some years we spot a solitary fox on its morning constitutional. We know too that we have Badgers nearby as in late winter and spring they scour patches of the field overnight looking for worms and bulbs (including orchids, to our dismay). Badgers have a worse reputation as, by carrying bovine TB and even hepatitis, they threaten beef and dairy herds; it’s a shame that the ‘debate’ about what to do about this threat to cattle is too often polarised, as was the debate about fox-hunting. The last carnivore to be noted (apart from a weasel that crossed our path, again as we drove home at night) is the Cat: not the domestic moggie (though that is a much-maligned predator) but the feral version which, in the countryside as much as the town, walks around where it will as if it owns the place. Which it probably does.

Wales is known for its sheep, but even when they escape their fields to become ‘long-acre sheep’ I can’t really class them as ‘wild’. So I will briefly mention Seals which, as examples of Pinnipeds, we see when they come ashore to pup on inaccessible beaches around the Pembrokeshire coast, and Dolphins, prime instances of the Whale group, which also show along the coastline of Cardigan Bay in their wanderings around the Irish Sea. But as we have to travel a score of miles or more to see these I feel diffident about suggesting these as local to us.

This Collins guide has a short introduction, an afterword about mammal biology and the expected index, acknowledgements and listing of organisations involved in conserving and protecting mammals. It’s accessible and pocket-sized, a handy reference to give you the basics whether it sits on the shelf or is carried around in the backpack, whether you’re remaining at home or travelling through continental Europe. The English translation flows easily and while not great literature — there are no elegiac descriptive passages here that I have noticed — is straightforwardly factual, giving all the details you would expect such as life cycle, appearance, feeding habits and habitat.

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7 thoughts on “Born to be wild

    1. No I wasn’t aware of polecats here before now: they always sounded like a term of abuse in those 50s cowboy films (“You dirty rotten polecat!”), rather like ‘varmint’ and such. They’re striking creatures to look at, but I’m not sure I’d like them if we still had hens or ducks.

      Hares, on the other hand, are both beautiful and powerful. I’m not surprised you saw them spook horses: Boudicca (the warrior queen formerly known as Boadicea) reputedly let them loose among opposing Roman troops to engender panic.

    1. Luckily, no, Lizzie! Skunks are native to the New World. Unless someone’s released some into the wild here, as they did with mink.

      But maybe because of the face markings (“Who was that masked cat?”) and the associated stink New World skunks were called by an Old World name. (Just like American robins are unrelated to European robins despite a superficial resemblance.)

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