When it comes to wildlife in this country, our attitude can perhaps best be summed up by George Orwell’s famous line: “All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others.”
Most of us are fine with cats, dogs and rabbits, but if you start talking about foxes, or mice and rats then smiles can quickly turn to frowns and grimaces. We might like to think we’re a nation of animal lovers but there’s not a lot of love for vermin or rodents.
Those who live in cities might think the proper place for wildlife is in the countryside but, as the boundaries between town and country become increasingly blurred, we find ourselves encountering wild animals much closer to home and on a more frequent basis.
According to nearly a decade of detailed fieldwork and analysis by wildlife charity People’s Trust for Endangered Species (PTES), our urban landscape is providing an increasingly important haven for a variety of animals. But the charity believes that rather than fostering a greater understanding of the animal world, the media has painted a misleading picture and led many people to believe that we face a growing threat from wildlife invading our city streets.
Earlier this month, a fox believed to be the biggest killed in Britain was shot after attacking lambs on a farm in Aberdeenshire. It weighed a whopping 38lb 1oz (17.2kg) and was 4ft 9in (1.4m) from its nose to the tip of its tail – the average fox tends to weigh around 15lb (6.8kg). This was undoubtedly a big beast, but the fact it ended up being shot suggests foxes have more to fear from us than the other way round.
There’s no denying that some animals get a bad press. A couple of years ago, Bradford’s Ravenscliffe estate gained notoriety following claims that giant rats were roaming the streets, following reports that a 30-inch rodent – dubbed “ratzilla” by the tabloids – was shot dead on the estate. Local residents claimed to have seen rats “the size of a loaf of bread” and others they had mistaken for cats. Pest control experts from Bradford Council were called out but found no evidence of any giant rodents.
Jill Nelson, chief executive the People’s Trust for Endangered Species, is keen to try and change people’s perceptions. “Giant foxes are apparently ‘mugging’ people of their groceries in dark alleyways. Grey squirrels are eating all the birds’ eggs and rats are apparently jumping at our throats. Foxes will take food where they can scavenge, it’s true, but are easily shooed away and there’s no scientific evidence they are getting bigger,” she says.
“Squirrels (grey and red) do occasionally eat eggs and fledglings, but not that many. And rats jump to escape not to attack. Contrast this with over 5,000 annual hospital admissions resulting from people being attacked by dogs, or the annual toll of about 50 million birds killed by domestic cats.”
PTES says that contrary to the public’s belief that the urban fox population is increasing it has barely changed in a decade. It also points out there aren’t as many rats in the UK as there are people – there are fewer than 10 million brown rats in Britain compared to 60 million humans.
As well as debunking such urban myths, the wildlife charity is calling for volunteers to take part in its annual Living with Mammals survey and monitor our wildlife to help create a more accurate picture of where different species are living in Britain’s urban landscapes.
The survey, which takes place from April to June each year, requires volunteers spending as little as ten minutes observing a chosen site each week for a two month period.
The charity hopes that by showing people the data that gets collected it can set the record straight about some common misconceptions regarding urban mammals.
PTES Surveys Officer David Wembridge explains: “The data from Living with Mammals continues to demonstrate that urban sites provide important habitats for encouraging greater biodiversity.
“Considering gardens make up between a third and a half of the green space in urban areas, their significance for wildlife and biodiversity is clear.
“People with access to gardens can take simple steps to help support urban mammals, as well as birds and insects, by providing a range of easy, low maintenance microhabitats such as compost heaps, log piles and ponds which will support invertebrates, and offer nesting and hibernation sites.”
To take part in the 2012 Living with Mammals survey, register online at www.ptes.org/surveys