This is by far, one of the most surprising blogs I’ve written because the Wildlife in England is surprisingly, not only plentiful but really beautiful. Much like other countries in Europe, the wildlife is not the first thing that comes to mind when thinking of Britain. This blog is going to pinpoint a few animals which are worthwhile looking out for when you’re next in the United Kingdom.
Red deer are a native species having migrated to Britain from Europe 11,000 years ago. They were used extensively by Mesolithic man as a source of food, skins, and tools (bones and antlers). However, the development of agriculture by Neolithic man cleared swathes of forest to make way for fields and this loss of forest encouraged the decline of red deer populations, which became confined to the Scottish Highlands, south-west England and a few other small, scattered populations
The Normans protected deer in parks and ‘forests’ (often devoid of trees!) for royal hunting, but this protection was lost during the Medieval period causing another decline in numbers in England. Victorian re-introductions of ‘improved’ stock (often inter-bred with larger related species such as wapiti), escapes from deer parks, natural spread, together with an increase in the Highlands and in forest and woodland cover since the early 20th century, mean that red deer are now widely distributed and are expanding in range and number.
Male red deer are called stags, females hinds and the young calves. Females (hinds) weigh 63 to 120kg and stand up to 1.07 – 1.22m at the shoulder. By comparison, an average adult man in Britain stands at 1.77m high and weighs 79kg. Deer living in open upland habitats tend to be smaller than those living in more wooded lowland areas.
Red deer are a distinctive rusty red colour in summer turning to a brown winter coat. Adults are not spotted. They have a short tail and a pale rump patch with no particular distinguishing features. They also have a large head with wide-spaced brown eyes. The stag’s antlers are the species most distinguishing feature. They are highly branched, and the branches increase with age with multiple points on each antler. The angle of the forward point from the main antler beam is about 90° (unlike the sika). Antlers are cast during March/April and begin to regrow to be fully formed and clear of velvet in August/September.
Red deer hoof prints or ‘slots’ are unmistakably large and can be confused with sheep or goat marks. Slots may be distorted with the gait of the animal and/or soft ground. A stag’s front hoof may measure 8-9 cm in length.
While preferring woodland and forest habitats in England and southern Scotland, red deer can adapt to open moor and hills as they have in parts of Scotland and south-west England. Native stock are common in the Scottish Highlands, Dumfriesshire, Lake District, East Anglia and the south-west of England. Feral stock are present in the north of England, North Midlands, East Anglia, the New Forest, and Sussex.
They graze on grasses and dwarf shrubs e.g. heather and bilberry. Woody browse, e.g. tree shoots, is taken when other food is limited during winter. However, grazing of tree shoots and agricultural crops puts red deer in conflict with farmers and foresters due to economic damage. Conversely, many country and forest estates can gain substantial revenue from recreational stalking and/or venison production. As well as being farmed for their venison red deer are also kept as ornamental park species in the UK. Whether in conflict or used as a resource, red deer populations require careful management to maintain health and quality and ensure a sustainable balance with their environment.
The breeding season, or the rut, occurs from the end of September to November. Stags return to the hind’s home range and compete for them by engaging in elaborate displays of dominance including roaring, parallel walks, and fighting. Serious injury and death can result from fighting but this only occurs between stags of similar size that cannot assess dominance by any of the other means. The dominant stag then ensures exclusive mating with the hinds.
Despite being sexually mature before their second birthday in productive woodland populations, only stags over five years old tend to mate. In woodland populations, hinds over one year old give birth to a single calf after an eight-month gestation, between mid-May to mid-July. Puberty may be delayed until three years old in hill hinds, which may give birth only once every two or three years. Some Scottish hill populations suffer heavy infant mortality at and shortly after birth and during their first winter. Lifespan can be, exceptionally, up to 18 years.
In woodland red deer are largely solitary or occur as mother and calf groups. On open ground, larger single sex groups assemble, only mixing during the rut. In the Highlands of Scotland, large groups may persist for most of the year. Red deer are active throughout the 24 hour period but make more use of open spaces during the hours of darkness in populations experiencing frequent disturbance. Peak times of activity are at dawn and dusk. In the Highlands of Scotland red deer use the open hills during the day and descend to lower ground during the night.
Stags roar and grunt during the rut. Hinds bark when alarmed and moo when searching for their young. Calves emit a high-pitched squeal when alarmed and may bleat to their mother.
The grey seal is the larger of the two UK seal species, and if you catch a good look at them you’ll see how they got their scientific name Halichoerus grypus – it means hook-nosed sea pig! These mammals spend most of their time out at sea feeding on fish. They return to land to rest and can often be seen ‘hauled out’, lying on British beaches. Grey seals give birth to fluffy white pups in the autumn. These adorable pups stay on land until they have lost their white coats and trebled their body weight.
The grey seal can be distinguished from the common seal by its larger size and longer head with a sloping ‘roman nose’ profile. Looking straight on, their nostrils are parallel, rather than v-shaped as in common seals. Mainly grey in colour, the unique pattern of darker blotches and spots can be used to identify individuals.
How people can help
Seals regularly ‘haul out’ to digest their food or rest, so if you meet one on a beach, give it plenty of space and keep dogs away. This is especially true for mothers and pups. Seals are also easily spooked from their rocky resting spots, so if in a boat or kayak, maintain a distance of at least 100m where possible.
If you suspect a pup has been abandoned or a seal is injured and in need of attention, keep your distance and call for help.
Entanglement in marine litter and ghost fishing gear is a big threat to seals. Why not participate in a beach clean or simply pick up and safely dispose of any rope, strapping or net next time you’re at the beach.
Grey seals usually come ashore to breed from late September until December. They prefer barren uninhabited islands and often go back to the same beach each year to breed. They give birth to a single pup of about 14kg, which the mother sniffs to learn its scent. Pups are suckled five or six times a day for 16 – 18 days, more than doubling and their weight by the time they are weaned and have moulted their white fur.
UK population 112,000. Grey seals are particularly abundant around the coasts of the Outer Hebrides and the Orkney Islands in Scotland. Small numbers are found off the coasts of Wales, Cornwall and Norfolk, and larger numbers off the Lincolnshire coast, Farne Islands, Isle of May and Shetland Islands.
Watch this amazing video about this naughty seal who was first rescued in the Netherlands and then again in London! Quite the traveller…
Hedgehogs are small mammals with cone-shaped faces, short legs and bodies that are covered with porcupine-like quills. Despite their similar appearances, porcupines and hedgehogs are surprisingly not closely related.
Unlike porcupines, hedgehog quills are not easily detached from their bodies. Hedgehog quills are made from keratin, much like human nails and according to the African Wildlife Foundation (AWF), a hedgehog can have as many 6,000 quills on its body.
When in danger, the hedgehog rolls into a ball so that the quills cover the entire area of their exposed body and protects the animal from predators. Once they are in a ball, they must stay still. It is a myth that they can roll while curled into a ball.
Most hedgehogs can fit into an adult’s hand. They range in size from 4 to 12 inches (10 to 30 centimetres). They typically weigh from 5 to 56 ounces (155 to 1,584 grams), depending on the species.
Hedgehogs can be found in Europe, Asia, Africa and New Zealand. They can live in a wide range of habitats, including savannas, forests, deserts, scrublands and suburban gardens.
Hedgehog homes are usually burrows and nests they build themselves. Hedgehog burrows can be up to 20 inches (50 cm) deep, according to the San Diego Zoo, and nests are made from leaves, branches and other vegetation. Sometimes, hedgehogs take over burrows that other animals have left behind or nestle between rocks.
Hedgehogs are solitary creatures that are big sleepers and can sleep up to 18 hours per day. They are also nocturnal, which means they sleep during the day. This can make them poor pet choices for someone that wants and active pet during daytime hours.
At night, hedgehogs search for food. Hedgehogs have poor eyesight and rely on hearing and smell to help them find food. Hedgehogs also have up to 44 teeth.
They use sleep to protect themselves from extreme climates in addition to just getting rest. Hedgehogs hibernate in cold climates, and they sleep through times of heat and drought in deserts. This process of sleeping during heat and drought is called aestivation. In areas where there aren’t extreme climates, hedgehogs are active and have normal sleep cycles.
Hedgehogs are named for the way they eat. They root underneath hedges and other vegetation, making snorting noises like a hog. During this activity, they find meals of fruit, fungi, centipedes, insects, snails, worms, mice, frogs, eggs, birds, frogs, reptiles, roots and snakes. Hedgehogs can eat one-third of their body weights in just one night.
The basking shark is incredibly scary in appearance to many, and they do tend to wollow in the water around the United Kingdom. The Basking Shark is the second largest species of extant shark, only smaller than the Whale Shark in overall size. Compared to Great White Sharks, they are much larger. Like whale sharks, basking sharks are filter feeders that grow to enormous size while eating the ocean’s smallest organisms!
Basking sharks can reach enormous sizes – some have been over 40 feet long and weigh as much as 16 tons! Due to their slow movement, docile nature, and lack of sharp teeth, basking sharks have long been a target of the fishing industry. However, its populations have dwindled considerably due to all the harvesting, and the shark is now considered Endangered.
With a jaw that can be 3 feet wide, basking sharks may look intimidating. But, looks can be deceiving. Basking sharks are not known to be aggressive or dangerous, and will often circle groups of snorkelers and divers calmly. As a filter feeder, basking sharks have no desire to eat humans or other large animals.
Instead, basking sharks spend nearly all of their time and energy following the plankton as it blooms and grows in different areas of the ocean. These sharks will follow groups of plankton from the surface of the ocean to over 3000 feet deep. Basking shark shoals will migrate thousands of miles every year chasing the best plankton blooms.
Interestingly, basking sharks are ovoviviparous. This means the female does not lay eggs but instead allows the eggs to develop inside of her. Here, young sharks can grow to nearly 5 feet long before she gives birth to them – keeping them safe from even the largest predators!
While the basking shark is interesting enough in its own rite – you might be surprised to find out that this species also displays some fascinating biological concepts that are seen in other species.
While many sharks simply lay eggs and leave them to develop, the basking shark takes a strategy that requires a bit more of an investment: ovovivipary.
The “ovo-” means eggs, while the “vivipary” means live birth. And, that’s exactly what happens. The eggs are fertilized internally and are retained within a uterus-like chamber. As they hatch, they rely on the nutrients in their egg sack in order to grow. Some researchers assume that the new young may eat unfertilized eggs as a food source.
After as long as 2-3 years, the young are finally born. To us, they would look like a full-grown shark at 5 feet long. But, they have a long way to go to reach their nearly 40 feet potential. Being born at nearly 5 feet long ensures that basking sharks have very few natural predators – so they should have an easy time of it. Unfortunately, humans are the main predator of basking sharks and have harvested them close to extinction!
Wildlife in England is clearly not as boring as you might have thought, from very cute seals hedgehogs, to very majestic red deer and basking sharks. These are but a few of the many animals native to the United Kingdom. Perhaps you’ll have your eyes slightly more peeled next time you make it around to England.
If you’re interested in seeing animals when there in a more formal way, have a look at the following potential operators:
Padstow Sea life Safaris To see some basking sharks in Cornwall